This is a collection of two classic and one recent composition
by Peter Maxwell Davies, who is - hard to believe - nearly 75.
It contains sensitively-played music for mixed ensemble in recognition
of Mediaeval and Renaissance music, in which such a combination
was so natural. Indeed, the Pavans from towards the start of
the composer's career are based on Purcell. Similarly, Vesalii
Icones is a series of movements reflecting a depiction of
the human anatomy by the sixteenth century Belgian physician
Andreas van Wesel.
Even the newer work, Linguae Ignis ('Tongues of Fire')
from 2002 is based on two Pentecostal plainchants, Dum complerentur
and Veni Creator Spiritus. Here it's played by its dedicatee
cellist, Vittorio Ceccanti. He is the ideal soloist. He is able
to remain detached - aloof, almost - when members of the ensemble,
the brass in particular, seem to do everything they can to squash,
at least to press down on, the delicacy of the cello's melody.
Without this juxtaposition Ceccanti’s sinuous lines would actually
make less sense, The work is potentially tentative and fragmentary.
Yet it benefits from being held together in this performance
by the richness and confidence of Ceccanti's cello unabashed
yet unmannered cello style: clean, pungent and open.
Vesalii Icones is just as dramatic, just as taut. Perhaps
even more so. It's a work that really benefits from also experiencing
the contortions and gyrations of the dancer who is usually involved
in live performances. It’s the visual and kinetic equivalent
of the strangled utterances of the Mad King George, in Maxwell
Davies' piece of the same year. Although played without a break,
the sanctus bells lend structure, and distinguish between the
14 sections, none of which lasts longer than five minutes.
Again, the playing of the Contempoartensemble is direct and
directed - at the essence of that almost tangible energy which
characterises Vesalii Icones. It's as cautious as it's
caustic - for it is searing …There is little that's calming
or re-assuring as the sections referring to the Agony of Christ
make their tortuous way to the tragic conclusion. Such concentration
is necessary … already half-way through Vesalii Icones
Maxwell Davies' trade-mark 'honky tonk' and ragtime piano make
their appearance. If the work, actually serious, isn't to descend
into 'genre' music, then playing which is neither humourless
nor too grandiose is vital.
Contempoartensemble is splendid in this respect. Their players
distil the musicality, the melody, texture and particularly
the pacing of Maxwell Davies' spare scores in such a way that
you feel you have really understood its essence. The sleeve-note
describes the music as 'sardonic and provocative'. In a way
that's just what it is not … in these players' hands. They have
a far more thorough and engaging grasp of the juxtaposition
of the 'old and new'. They produce music that stands in its
own right. What a refreshing approach. We're used to ensembles
- especially Maxwell Davies' own Fires of London - who bring
the weight, experience and idiom of the composer's apparently
quirky blend of syncopation and sensitivity to their performances.
Where Contempoartensemble scores on this new release is precisely
by lacking - or seeming to lack; summa ars…? - what we
may well always have assumed were those required traditions.
The result is a freshness, a perception and a depth that force
us to listen to this music anew.
This transparency is just as evident in the Fantasia on a
Ground. Contempoartensemble lacks none of the necessary
'swing' and panache to convey Maxwell Davies' enthusiasm for
1930s dance music. They have all the robustness needed to prevent
any hint of 'camp'. At the same time, it's a very respectful
- not to say respectable, even - performance. This has the welcome
effect of drawing our attention back to the nuance and subtlety
in the music instead of leading us astray with pastiche elements.
The acoustic is immediate and close without being over
intense. The liner-notes are to the point and clear. Amazingly,
this is now the only recording of any of these works in
the current catalogue; another reason for snapping it up without