Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
Piccolo Concerto, op.182 (1996) [16:33]
Trumpet Concerto, op.132 (1988) [30:25] *
Maxwell's Reel, with Northern Lights, op.191 (1998) [10:49]
Five Klee Pictures, op.12 (1959/1976) [10:41] +
Stewart McIlwham (piccolo); John Wallace (trumpet)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies
*Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies
+Philharmonia Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. St Augustine's, Kilburn, London, 18 May 1998; *City Halls, Glasgow, April 1990; +All Saints Church, Tooting, London, 3 December 1994. DDD
NAXOS 8.572363 [68:28]
This is the latest volume in Naxos's excellent series of reissues of 1990s-vintage Collins Classics recordings of Peter Maxwell Davies's orchestral works. 2012 saw the release of five separate volumes offering his first six symphonies - see reviews of the First, Third, Fourth & Fifth and Sixth. Now that the Collins Classics originals are only available second-hand or imported, these Naxos CDs become especially collectable: in most cases they remain - rather surprisingly - the only recordings of these major late-20th-century works.
This latest disc has two links to the Sixth Symphony recording, both through veteran instrumentalist and composer George McIlwham. Alongside the Sixth can be heard one of Maxwell Davies's most popular works, An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise. Some may remember it from the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 1992, with Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra: the Highland piper that night was none other than McIlwham, father of Stewart, piccolo soloist on the present recording. Furthermore, An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise sports not only a similar title to the more recent Maxwell's Reel With Northern Lights, it also provides it with some instantly recognisable material. The titular Maxwell is not the composer, incidentally, but rather indicates a Scottish folk tune from Carolina Nairne's invaluable anthology published in the 1820s as The Scottish Minstrel.
The Piccolo Concerto is a curious work, not merely because of the unusual solo instrument: all three movements are slow, with only a couple of spurts of speed up to allegro. In fact, much of this CD consists of unusually slow-tempo music, and it might be argued that the programming could have been more effective if it had been more contrastive. At any rate, the piccolo flute is possibly not everyone's idea of a reflective instrument - and Maxwell Davies does exploit the top end of its range at times. However in a stratospheric kind of way it does achieve a certain serenity, especially when played with McIlwham's expertise. There have not been many piccolo concertos since Vivaldi's three, and Maxwell Davies' exemplar leaves the listener wondering why more composers have not had a go.
In the sense that it is completely tonal and even angularly tuneful, the concerto makes for a good opener. On the other hand, its general tranquillity would make it a good follow-up to the finale of the Trumpet Concerto which, though it too begins ruminatively - albeit with a noticeably larger orchestra - ends with a terrifically virtuosic presto-marked last movement. It celebrates the livelier qualities of the trumpet and revels in the work's outstanding dedicatee John Wallace, not to mention Maxwell Davies's sometimes overtly modernist leanings. Orchestrational differences aside, the long central Adagio sounds as if it may have inspired the middle movement of James MacMillan's recent trumpet concertino entitled Seraph - memorably recorded by Alison Balsom recently for EMI Classics - see review.
Modernism is to the fore in the Five Klee Pictures, which are a revised early piece. These pictures are rhythmically striking, graphic studies of genius-or-charlatan Paul Klee. The work was originally written, perhaps surprisingly, for a school orchestra. As in all the works heard here, though, Maxwell Davies rarely wanders too far from tonality or recognisable structures.
Conducting three excellent orchestras across an eight-year period, the Master of the Queen's Music makes sure his is done the right way for posterity. Posterity should now make sure it has a copy of this disc! Sound quality ranges from good to first-rate. The booklet texts are shared between David Nice and Richard Whitehouse, both eloquent annotators.
One minor criticism of Naxos's presentation is the absence of opus numbers - the above are taken from Maxwell Davies's excellent website. Also, the error from a previous release of omitting the final 's' from Glasgow's City Halls reappears here. Credit to Naxos, however, for not reprinting the photo of the composer on the cover of the Collins Classics Trumpet Concerto disc wearing that shirt.
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In most cases these remain - rather surprisingly - the only recordings of these major late-20th-century works.
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