Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
Symphony no.1, op.119 (1976) [54:54]
Mavis in Las Vegas (1997) [13:09]
BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 8-9 December 1994 (Symphony); 10 July 1997 (Mavis). DDD
NAXOS 8.572348 [68:03]
Following the success of the ten 'Naxos' Quartets (review of boxed set), 2012 sees Naxos reissuing the first five Maxwell Davies Symphonies (review of the Third) and there’s much more to follow from one of Britain's finest living composers. These Symphonies were all originally issued in the mid-Nineties by the now vanished Collins Classics label: Mavis in Las Vegas appeared on 15242 (1998) and the First Symphony on 14352 (1995). The only other recording to date of the latter remains the premiere by a young Simon Rattle conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra on Decca in the late Seventies, reissued on Universal Classics a decade ago (473 721-2), still widely available at a competitive price.
Mavis in Las Vegas is a work of unabashedly light music, a sort of cross between his own An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise and some of Malcolm Arnold's more frivolous film music. It recounts a night out in the titular world headquarters of gaudiness by 'Mavis' - the name under which a hotel had reserved a room for a touring Maxwell Davies.
For those who know the composer only through Mavis, An Orkney Wedding or the pretty, universally mispronounced piano piece Farewell to Stromness, the Symphony no.1 will feel like an icy plunge into the cold waters of the North Sea. This is by contrast a work that makes substantial demands on the intellect and concentration, and is therefore not altogether lovable at first or second hearing - unless perhaps the listener skips to the last five minutes. It undulates and rumbles along for nearly an hour with little in the way of tunes, and with plenty of atonal passages. Yet Maxwell Davies's orchestral colourisation is always inspired and evocative of the dramatic seascapes of his home on Orkney. Like the Second Symphony, the First is vivid in its modernistically-inclined representation of the flows, sounds and firths that surround the islands. The work as a whole becomes more accessible and alluring with every reacquaintance.
The BBC Philharmonic in the safe and authoritative hands of Maxwell Davies himself give a good, solid performance of what is a rather demanding work for musicians too. They can even be heard to loosen the dicky and undo a button for Mavis in Las Vegas.
Sound quality in both recordings is fairly good, but certainly does not justify the 'superb' rating given by Naxos's resident reviewer - at times there is a distinct loss of definition in the strings. On the other hand, this slight lossy feel is not enough to undermine the impact of Maxwell Davies's music. The composer's own booklet notes are intelligent and interesting, especially where he relives his experience as 'Mavis'.
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The Symphony becomes more accessible and alluring with every reacquaintance.
Reviews of Maxwell Davies on Naxos