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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Psalm 124 (1974) [8:44]
Dove, Star-Folded (2000) [8:21]
Economies of Scale (2002) [7:12]
Ave Maris Stella (1975) [28:34]
Gemini/Ian Mitchell
rec. PATS Studio I, Surrey University, 23 December 2005 and 8 October 2006 (Ave Maris Stella)
METIER MSV28503 [52:46]
Experience Classicsonline

I thought we were going to have ‘I was born under a wandering star’ with the opening low tones of Psalm 124. This is one of Davies’s earlier pieces referring to mediaeval and renaissance sources for some of the musical material. The slow unfolding of relatively straightforward intervals, transparent instrumentation including solo guitar recitatives, and low marimba, cello and bass clarinet sonorities gives the work a timeless, remote sort of feel. Gentle variations with flute and glockenspiel over the top add colour and sparkle in the opening, but the central bass clarinet solo sounds a little flat to me – not so much out of tune as giving little in the way of phrasing and tonal interest. Rather than fading, the piece rises to a sort of climax – one of those ambiguous ones to which you could effectively add a recapitulating coda, but the piece just stops.

Dove, Star-Folded is a string trio, and was written as a memorial for Sir Steven Runciman. This time the music has its origins in a Greek Byzantine hymn, referring to Sir Steven’s researches into Byzantine history. This is not an element which is immediately apparent, and Christopher Mark’s booklet notes indicate that the piece has been compared with the atmosphere to be found in late Beethoven Quartets, Op.132 for instance. Longer periods of introverted repose and some unexpected angular contrasts might give that idea, but I’m afraid the piece rumbled along without making much of an impression on me – probably because I’ve been listening to too much Shostakovich. The last minutes from 6:50 do however have their own serene beauty.

By way of contrast, Economies of Scale opens with an explosion of notes. The most recent piece in this programme; there are echoes of Messiaen in some of the piano writing, the birdlike phrases and the almost inevitable association with sonorities such as flautando violin and clarinet. The music has a fascinating narrative, almost programmatic content to my ears, seeming to pass through related events rather than flow in a way in which memory connects shapes to create structure over time. The intensity of the opening is counterbalanced by the serenity of the conclusion, creating a short story which you immediately want to read again.

At nearly half an hour, Ave Maris Stella is by a long way the most substantial work on this disc. Written for the ensemble The Fires of London, the virtuosic nature of the music reflects the avant-garde credentials of this legendary group, which was on a par with the London Sinfonietta. Their composer-directed recording on Unicorn-Kanchana is still available, and is still something of a must-have if you are interested in British contemporary music of the flared jeans and long hair period. There is a description in the booklet notes of the magic square matrix used in formulating the material for this piece, but it suffices to say that this is more of a springboard from which compositional processes can begin, rather than a strict serial technique à la Webern. While the plainchant from which the title derives appears to be and is part of the fabric of the piece, there is a greater sense of atonality in much of this music, making for something more of a sustained intellectual challenge for the listener. With a little extra concentration, and attention to the atmosphere and instrumental colours in the writing you should in fact discover that there are fewer problems than you might imagine. Each section is well enough defined, with contrasts between, for instance, an extended marimba solo, and a subsequent movement in which a rich interaction between the other instruments gathers seemingly disparate arguments into the more lyrical and expressive solos of the next. The ticking marimba in the exquisite final movement may or may not be a nod in the direction of colleague and clock fan Harrison Birtwistle, with whom Davies founded the Pierrot Players, predecessors of The Fires of London.

Gemini has performed and recorded extensively since its formation in 1974, working in music education as ensemble-in-residence at a number of institutes, and winning prizes and awards along the way. Like the builder’s broom, the various bits have changed over the years, but they make a fine noise: playing with great panache on this disc, and with a clear affinity with the composer’s craftsman-like idiom. The studio recording, while a little on the dry side, is also very good.

Dominy Clements

see also review by Gary Higginson


 


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