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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Psalm 124 (1974) [8.44]
Dove Star-Folded (2000-01) [8.21]
Economies of Scale (2002) [7.12]
Ave Maris Stella (1975) [28.34]
Gemini/Ian Mitchell
rec. PATS Studio 1, Department of Music and Sound Recording, Surrey University: Ave Maris Stella: 8 December 2006; 23 December 2005. DDD
METIER MSV28503 [53.04]
Experience Classicsonline

Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) is the longest work on this rather short-running CD. It is based on the same plainsong melody used by Monteverdi in his Vespers and by many other composers. These include Dunstable - one of the medieval composers so admired by Maxwell Davies. Nowadays when PMD’s works seem to be more available on-line than on new CDs, this disc is an especial pleasure. It is no surprise that this large-scale work dates from 1975 when Davies was at the height of his interest in early music. His many realizations were produced for ‘The Fires of London’ or ‘The Pierrot Players’ as they were known for some of the early years and whom he directed for several years. In fact they recorded it for the now defunct Unicorn-Kanchana label (latterly UKCD 2038) under the composer’s direction in 1981. They continued in existence until 1987. It’s interesting to compare the versions. Incidentally if you can get hold of the Unicorn disc it also possesses ‘Image, Reflection and Shadow’, and ‘Runes from the Holy Island’ - a very generous coupling. The problem with the older disc is that thirty minute long Ave Maris Stella was only allotted one track. This was despite falling into nine sections which the composer insists should be unconducted. On this new disc the work is presented in nine tracks and the structure and pictures behind the piece are clearly brought to our attention. Consequently I felt as if I understood the piece better, although I must add that the older version has more ‘atmos’ in its beautiful, opening five or six minute section. This is enabled by a spacious recording which is less concerned with highlighting the individual lines. The new recording is closer and vivid and that does help to ensure that all the detail is captured. The two versions are of almost identical length.
In his useful if at times somewhat technical notes Christopher Mark gives a great amount of detail on the form and background to the work and on PMD’s use of the so-called ‘Magic Square’. I can’t say, and I speak as a composer myself, how this really works, Mark’s explanation is quite clear but as none of this can really be heard and I have no score, it’s all rather useless; anyway as Mark says it’s the “composer’s business”. Even the actual plainsong melody quoted towards the end is not at all easy to spot. Nevertheless the nocturnal, elegiac quality of a significant part of this music is a great attraction. This is aided by its fast passages. The whole piece is one virtuoso performing exercise and a compositional tour-de-force.
From 1974 comes Psalm 124 which was also recorded by ‘The Fires’ on LP many years ago. Like ‘Ave Maris’ there is an important marimba part and also one for glockenspiel. Both of these instruments were to be ‘done to death’ in the Symphony No. 1 of 1979. In the Psalm they are surrounded by a halo of flute doubling alto flute, bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello and guitar. The latter breaks up variants of the Scottish psalm tune with some complex polyphonic solo sections, making the piece, formally, quite intriguing. 
The more recent works are quite concentrated, even terse, and in a way are ‘chippings from the master’s studio’. Also I never got the feeling with Max that he was simply ‘going through the motions’. I say this despite his having been incredibly prolific. These pieces are certainly worth getting to know.
‘Dove, Star-Folded’ (does the title remind you of a George Mackay Brown poem title?) is scored for a string trio and was composed at Christmas 2000 as a spontaneous memorial for Steven Runiciman, (his book ‘The Fall of Constantinople’ is a masterpiece). It has therefore a solemn and intense mood but a lively almost skittish middle section.
Gemini have a wonderful sense of ensemble and are in touch with the internal rhythm so needed in this music. This comes to the fore again in the last work ‘Economies of Scale’ - an odd title? So I thought too, but it was commissioned by Sir James Morrison, Scottish economist and Nobel Prize winner in the Nobel centenary year. The astringent and almost wild opening with dominating piano gradually calms down into what Christopher Mark calls a “beautifully poised ending”, a whole world has passed by in seven minutes.
In a way this disc is iconic contemporary music of our times - challenging for performers and for listeners but not unfriendly. It gives a sense at the end that you have not wasted your time and that you have heard pieces worth their space in the world and the disc a space on your over-loaded shelves. You feel that the music says something and that the players believe in it. The recording is first class and the highly professional presentation of accompanying booklet and photographs helpful and serious. All in all a deservedly high quality product delivered from the hands of top musicians.
Gary Higginson


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