Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
Symphony no.4, op.136 (1989) [42:46]
Symphony no.5, op.166 (1994) [26:25]*
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies
Philharmonia Orchestra*/Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, April 1990; *All Saints' Church, Tooting, London, 3 December 1994. DDD
NAXOS 8.572351 [69:12]

Following the success of Peter Maxwell Davies's ten 'Naxos' String Quartets (review of boxed set), 2012 sees Naxos reissuing the first five Symphonies (review of the Third and of the First), with the Sixth already on the way in November. Of the set as it stands to date, this is the most generous in terms of symphonic minutes, giving the listener two classic Symphonies - a double treat from one of Britain's greatest living composers.
These were originally issued in the early Nineties by the now vanished Collins Classics label: the Fourth Symphony on 11812 (1995), the Fifth on 14602 (1991). Curiously, given the stature of Maxwell Davies and the power of the two Symphonies, these remain the only recordings to date.
The composer had a long and close relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, even writing his ten Strathclyde Concertos for the orchestra's principals. Indeed, he composed the Fourth Symphony for the SCO, and it was he and they who gave the premiere at the BBC Proms in 1989, less than a year before this recording was made. The Fifth was also premiered at the Proms by Maxwell Davies (in 1994), but this time conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, who also commissioned it.
The scaled-down nature of the orchestra in the Fourth is not always self-evident - Maxwell Davies makes skilful, emphatic use of resources to create a flambeau of elemental force and grandeur. Despite certain significant differences, the work is in some ways a continuation of the Third, as is the Fifth of the Fourth: both tend to scud along now moodily, now more in contemplation, towards a more dramatic final section.
At any rate, both Symphonies present the composer in a very different light to frothier, melodic works by which he is more universally known, such as Mavis in Las Vegas, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise or Farewell to Stromness. As in much of Maxwell Davies's more substantial works, no one is going to be bowled over by an abundance of melody or dancy rhythms, but nor is the composer an unapproachable modernist, and for muscular vividness and multi-textured eloquence, this pair is hard to beat. The Fifth in particular, with its greater cut and thrust - and volume! - is probably the most accessible entry point into the composer's Symphonies.
Given their intimate knowledge of the respective scores, the SCO and Philharmonia's accounts of these works under their progenitor must be considered benchmarks, and there is nothing in these fairly immaculate recordings to start off any debate. Sound quality in both cases is good - the best of the bunch so far, in fact. Richard Whitehouse supplies the notes this time - detailed, informative, well written ones at that. The inlay gives the recording venue as 'Glasgow City Hall' - it should be Glasgow City Halls.
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For muscular vividness and multi-textured eloquence, this pair of symphonies is hard to beat.