Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Linguae Ignis (2002) [10:23]
Vesalii Icones (1969) [39:57]
Fantasia on a Ground and Two Pavans (1968) [10:22]
Vittorio Ceccanti (cello: Ignis, Icones) Contempoartensemble/Mauro Ceccanti
rec. 22-23 May 2004, Studio di Registrazione di Valter Neri, Montevarchi, Italy. DDD
NAXOS 8.572712 [60:41]

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 hesitation.

Mark Sealey

Highly idiomatic, pleasing, convincing and fresh performances of works central to Maxwell Davies’ output