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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Lullaby for Lucy (1981) [5:24]
BBC Singers/Simon Joly
Rec. St. Giles Church, London, March 1995
Strathclyde Concerto No. 9 for Six Woodwind Instruments (1994) [25:42]
David Nicholson (piccolo), Elizabeth Dooner (alto flute), Maurice Checker (cor anglais), Josef Pacewicz (E flat clarinet), Ruth Ellis (bass clarinet), Alison Green (contrabassoon)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/composer
Rec. City Hall, Glasgow, November 1996
Symphony No. 8 Antarctic [40:34]
Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra/composer
Rec. Konserthaus Die Glocke, Bremen, September 2003
MaxOpus Custom Compilation [71:50]

Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights (1998) [10:48]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/composer
Rec. St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, May 1998
Strathclyde Concerto No. 3 for Horn, Trumpet and Orchestra (1989) [31:27]
Adagio [8:31] - Allegro moderato [6:37] - Cadenza [2:30] - Andante [8:37] - Allegro [5:09]
Robert Cook (horn), Peter Franks (trumpet)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/composer
Rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, July 1991
Trumpet Concerto (1988) [30:18]
Adagio - Allegro [13:40]; Adagio molto [9:53]; Presto [6:43]
John Wallace (trumpet)
Scottish National Orchestra/composer
Rec. City Hall, Glasgow, April 1990
MaxOpus Custom Compilation [72:44]

My first experience of a custom-made CD from the MaxOpus website being highly favourable (see link), I ordered two further discs. As before, they arrived promptly and accompanied by customized booklets. Although I listened to a fair amount of Maxwell Davies’s music some years ago, all these works except Lullaby for Lucy were new to me and are the product of the last fifteen years. Being able to choose and order the programme to fill a disc is a considerable attraction (see previous review for practical details) and, if this is the future, then it is one to look forward to. How many versions of Tragic Overture as fillers for various Brahms symphony recordings can one’s collection stand? What might we be missing out on instead?

Lullaby for Lucy was written to celebrate the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first child born in Radwick, on the Orkney island of Hoy for 32 years. "Max" set himself the task of "banishing all black notes" i.e. using only those which are white on the piano. Perhaps this was an odd thing to do in a work for unaccompanied chorus but it gives the music a limpid feeling. The text by George Mackay Brown spells out Lucy’s name through the first letter of each line and is given twice (because, Max tells us, he liked the tune so much). Lucy is a lucky person to have had such a beautiful piece written for her – the best possible start in life. It is given a lovely performance by the BBC singers and is a good opener for the disc.

Surprisingly, the sextet of solo woodwind instruments of the Strathclyde Concerto No. 9 does not include the oboe but the combination of piccolo, alto flute, cor anglais, E flat clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabassoon is most interesting. The work is described as a descendant of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for wind K297b (very much a favourite piece of Mozart for me) and it seems that there was a specific intention to give these "auxiliary woodwinds" the chance to shine. They frequently do so in "jazz breaks", often in pairs. This inventive and melodious work is in a single movement and the string accompaniment is generally lightly scored. Under the direction of the composer, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, from whom the soloists are drawn, weave its unusual textures most effectively.

Max’s Antarctic Symphony, his 8th, is just three years old and is the best demonstration I have yet heard that the symphony is still alive and kicking in the 21st century. Commissioned jointly by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the British Antarctic Survey, it must have been quite a challenge to follow Vaughan Williams’ inspiring take on Antarctica. The composer’s first step was to get on a boat (the RRS James Clark Ross) and head south. His trip seems to have been unusually easy until they hit the ice. However, this is not reflected in the music since the ice is broken right away!

A single movement work spanning 40 minutes, this is intended to be mainly abstract music and has some roots in Pentecost Plainsong. Nevertheless, there are specific programmatic elements, the breaking (and, ultimately, melting) of ice, an avalanche, the rubbish left by past explorers. The composer also included in his calculations a "modified concept of time". This is powerful music and in a live performance the composer inspires the Bremen orchestra to a very convincing rendition. For further information about this work and some pictures of the trip, follow the link below.

Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights opens the second disc in mostly jaunty fashion. In a rather similar vein to An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, the composer turns again to his adopted Scottish heritage to excellent effect. The inspiration comes from a particular occasion when the composer saw the Northern lights on Hoy outside a hall in which music was being played. The reel is based on a tune known as Maxwell’s Strathspey which was published in 1824 as part of a collection called the Scottish Minstrel. As the reel ends, the Northern Lights take over in dramatic and contrasting fashion.

The Strathclyde Concerto No. 3 is for the unusual (although one should always hesitate before using the word, perhaps even unique?), pairing of horn and trumpet. My prior prejudice was to be sceptical of this combination but great imagination has gone into balancing the soloists against each other and full orchestral accompaniment. Textures are kept fairly light and the mood is generally buoyant. There are three movements played without a break, preceded by a long slow introduction. After the first movement there is a rather questioning cadenza which is no mere showpiece but an integral part of the structure.

The Trumpet Concerto is an uncompromising and substantial three movement work which was written for the soloist on this recording, John Wallace. The trumpet is clearly an important instrument for the composer - his first published work was a sonata for it. A Plainsong for the feast of St. Francis provides the musical and programmatic basis for the work, with the trumpet representing St. Francis. The slow introduction to the first movement broods ominously in the lower registers of the orchestra for about three minutes before the soloist enters and sets the scene for the allegro. John Wallace’s instrument sounds heroic in this movement and is most effectively balanced with the orchestra. The mood is more restful at the beginning of the slow movement. Here the solo instrument eventually takes flight in what has been seen as a "sermon to the birds". The finale is marked Presto and starts in airy fashion before becoming more serious. It concludes at a much slower tempo with important parts for percussion providing contrasts in a stark coda.

These two discs are full of variety and contain some of the most interesting contemporary music around. The standards of playing, recording and documentation are consistently high and they represent very good value for money (effectively they are at the lower end of "mid-price"). Once again, I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the site. Don’t follow my programming ideas, choose your own!

Patrick C Waller

Link to previous review:
Link to further information on the Antarctic Symphony:

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