Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Symphony No. 4 (1989)* [42:46]
Symphony No. 5 (1994)† [26:25]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra*/Peter Maxwell Davies
Philharmonia Orchestra†/Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. Glasgow City Hall, Scotland, April 1990 (4); All Saints Church, Tooting, London, 3 December 1994 (5) DDD
Previously released on Collins Classics in 1991 and 1995
NAXOS 8.572351 [69:12]
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 depths.
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, not sound.
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.
Mark Sealey
Reissues at an attractive price of the authoritative performances of two striking symphonic works.