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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Symphony No. 2 (1980) [56:02]
St Thomas Wake (1969) [20:38]
BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. September 1993, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK (symphony) and live 12/13 July 1991, Town Hall, Cheltenham, UK
NAXOS 8.572349 [76:40]

Experience Classicsonline


I was present at the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s First Symphony in London in 1978, and remember that my reaction to it was a surprising mixture of excitement and something close to disappointment. Prior to that evening the only music I knew by the composer was Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, both learned from Unicorn LPs and revered by me as radical, challenging stuff. Now here was the same composer essaying a much more traditional form, citing Schumann, of all people, as a source of study, and Sibelius as a major influence. Yet the work itself was gripping, holding my attention throughout despite a timing of getting on for an hour.
 
Since then I’ve found many of Maxwell Davies’s large-scale works rather grey and forbidding. I certainly felt this about the Third Symphony: the BBC Artium disc sits on my shelves, and I’m only too aware how much time has passed since it was last played. The Violin Concerto, in a superb performance by Isaac Stern, likewise. I even find it difficult to get heated about the remarkable series of string quartets instigated by Naxos.
 
When this performance of the Second Symphony was first released on the Collins label in 1994 the work was hailed in the Gramophone as a masterpiece. I didn’t hear it then, and come new to it now. Although I would hesitate before using the word “masterpiece” it is a very fine work indeed. Like its predecessor, it is written on a large scale, and in spite of the difficulty of perceiving its themes it does hold the listener’s attention, even at a first hearing. The inspiration for the work is the sea, and in particular - Maxwell Davies writes in the booklet note - the tensions set up by the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea “at the foot of the cliff before my window”. He goes on to describe at length his observations of wave forms and explains how he has sought to incorporate these into his symphony. He tells us, too, that part of the thematic material is derived from a Marian plainsong; curiously, the symphony “is a birthday gift for the Virgin.” It’s obviously prestigious to have the insert notes written by the composer, but if CD booklet notes are meant to constitute an aid to listening, which they surely should in the case of a new and difficult work, then these, at once technical and obscure in the extreme, are a dismal failure.
 
Stephen Pruslin’s note on St Thomas Wake, on the other hand, is very nearly a model of its kind, providing background information, explanation and description in straightforward language. The work itself is vintage Maxwell Davies, with a period band - dressed in boaters and striped blazers - sitting beside the symphony orchestra, its series of superbly adept pastiche foxtrots on which the orchestra comments and eventually overwhelms, and the whole a kind of ironic evocation of the composer’s childhood memories of the Second World War, plus much else besides. Though frequently comic, it is, in fact, a deeply serious work, heavily disguised.
 
The performance of the symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under the composer’s direction is a fine one. The work was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose violins might have been marginally more brilliant than these. One wonders how many times the Boston orchestra has given this work since its premiere in 1980. The live performance of St Thomas Wake, from the Cheltenham Festival, is sensational. The sound is very good in both works, though again, the violins seem weak in the symphony and could have been given a little more prominence.
 
Naxos, with their enormous catalogue of original recordings, are also putting us in their debt by reissuing performances such as these that have not seen the light of day for some time, often from defunct labels. In this case we have a deeply serious, big, four-movement symphony that does not give much away on a first hearing but enormously repays repeated listening and detailed study. It is coupled with a much more immediately attractive, shorter work that conceals its serious nature behind a frequently hilarious façade. Masterpieces? I don’t know, but I think the latter comes slightly closer than the former.
 
William Hedley 

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