Naxos is in the process of reissuing the Peter Maxwell Davies'
symphonies previously released on Collins Classics. The First
Symphony is on 8.572348, the Second on 8.572349,
and the Third 8.572350.
They're all superb performances - conducted by the composer.
He obviously approaches them from the inside and is totally
in tune with their energy, vigour, resilience, subtlety and
The performances do not attempt to advocate or make the case
for Max's music - however justified that might have been. Nor
do they implicitly draw attention to the particular place which
these expansive, arresting and wholly beautiful works hold in
the repertoire … large scale symphonic 'edifices'. Yet
each symphony is a building where the ripples in the plaster
and pointing - individual instruments' colours… the woodwind
and brass towards the end of the Fourth's moderato first
movement [tr.1], for instance - are as important as the superstructure:
orchestral form and development.
This is in the tradition of the Manchester School, of the works
of Goehr and Birtwistle. Texture is layered on texture; we are
taken on a journey, almost, as everything evolves. The build
up of timpani, pizzicato strings and brass at the opening of
the same symphony's second movement - an almost boisterous allegro
[tr.2], for example - is rich in stimuli, crisp, decisive, unyielding,
self-assured yet is never sound for sound's sake.
This is just the style of projection at which the Scottish Chamber
Orchestra excels. While you can be in no doubt about the purpose
of the unforgiving forward momentum of this symphonic style
- which contrasts with that of, say his Eighth - the orchestra's
playing is geared as much towards communication as towards projection.
Communication of subtleties, contrasts - especially between
instrument families, and between tempi - even within one movement
- is of prime importance alongside communication of energies
and of the sheer beauty of the music.
Specifically, repeated listening to these two symphonies suggests
a conscious direction which Maxwell Davies took. There is no
'narrative' or programme as such; although the composer has
clear priorities. One of them in the case of the Fourth Symphony
must surely be to produce a full and broad soundscape from what
is essentially a chamber orchestra of Classical force. He quietly
revels in that perhaps somewhat unexpected richness although
never self-consciously. Rumination invariably takes precedence
- as in the final andante, allegro movement [tr.4]
… listen to the interplay of strings and brass as pondering,
not faltering. The purpose and profundity then emerge.
The Fifth, like the Fourth six years before, was a commission
first performed at the Proms - in August 1994. It's in one movement,
although the listener is aware of sectional divisions. In that
sense the Fifth appears to break from Max's development until
that time yet it too is concerned with the transformation of
ideas. In fact it follows a not dissimilar path and set of priorities.
The Fifth has a large percussion section, which works always
to a purpose. Here it's the Philharmonia Orchestra which admirably
carries Maxwell Davies' conceptions to fruition.
Though, again, musicality and an implied direct relationship
with the listener take precedence over making any 'point'. The
contrasts - between the calm woodwind and brass outbursts at
the very start, for example, [tr.5] - are left to express what
they will. Max and the Philharmonia never overplay them for
mere sonic effect. Intensity and eloquence make the impact,
The acoustic - that of All Saints, Tooting - is spacious without
swamping the orchestra. The re-engineering on the Naxos CDs
is excellent; the resulting sonic breadth does these two expansive
works full justice. The essay that occupies the minimal insert
to the CD provides useful background and close but abbreviated
analyses of each movement. It also reminds us of the positive
critical reception of the Fifth in the early 1990s.
If you missed the Collins Classics series the first time, you'll
certainly want to pick up the CDs from this series as they appear
now - especially at this price; the originals are no longer
available. The performances lack nothing in immediacy, interpretative
depth and considered nuance. This is not the kind of music that
is ever likely to receive 'definitive' accounts. These recordings
are satisfying and enthralling as if they were indeed definitive.
Davies on Naxos