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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES ( b.1934)
Symphony no.2, op.91 (1980) [56:02]
St Thomas Wake - Foxtrot for Orchestra on a Pavan by John Bull, op.37 (1969) [20:38]
BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. New Broadcasting House, Manchester, September 1993 (Symphony); Cheltenham Town Hall, 47th Cheltenham Festival of Music, England, 12-13 July 1991 (St Thomas Wake, live). DDD
NAXOS 8.572349 [76:40]

This is the second of five volumes reissued by Naxos in 2012 of the 1990s-vintage Collins Classics recordings of Peter Maxwell Davies's Symphonies. See reviews of the First, Third, Fourth & Fifth and Sixth. With the Collins discs now only available second-hand or imported, these Naxos reissues are especially collectible: in most cases, as here, they remain - almost scandalously, it might be said - the only recordings of these major works.
Maxwell Davies stands alongside Bruckner and Mahler when it comes to writing massive symphonies - of his first six, only the Fourth and Fifth come in under the forty-five minute mark. Running to almost an hour, the Second demands a considerable commitment from listeners, but Maxwell Davies's symphonies are like those of Bruckner and Mahler in another significant way: the degree to which they are able to perplex contemporary audiences. Though the composer has always incorporated accessible popular elements in many of his works - such as folk in An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise, minimalism in Farewell to Stromness and jazz in St Thomas Wake - he remains a modernist at heart, and expressionism, or at least anti-lyricism, is never far away. That is generally true of all his symphonies, and the seascape-inspired Second is no exception, as the long, mainly atonal first movement testifies. There is little change in the more becalmed second, evidently reflecting more benign weather conditions around the composer's Orkney home. As his notes on the work make clear, there is a lot of 'science' in the score which may or may not, depending on the listener's sensitivities and proclivities, obscure some of the emotional content, at least initially. Maxwell Davies inscrutably describes the work as "a birthday gift for the Virgin [Mary]"; whatever the listener is supposed to make of that, this is the composer's response to the power, beauty and relentlessness of nature, and on repeated listening the architecture of his ideas starts to become more readily readable.
Maxwell Davies's modernist credentials are also in evidence in the St Thomas Wake. Despite the parodic foxtrot episodes, which are frequent, this is a work written in the 1960s, and sounds like it, at least for the first seven minutes, when there is little sign of John Bull's original Renaissance pavan, nor of anything recognisable by ballroom dancing enthusiasts. Atonality and clamour are pushed aside for a four-minute burst of swinging, foot-tapping frolicking. St Thomas Wake is a complex work, with a dark, lurking presence, and the noisy, dissonant drama reappears repeatedly, despite the efforts of an out-of-tune honky-tonk piano and various 'big band' instruments, making this a discomfiting, though always fascinating, experience.
Sound quality is really very good, especially considering the vintage of the recordings and the dynamic range needed to be accounted for, especially in St Thomas Wake, recorded live at the 1991 Cheltenham Festival - the audience, incidentally, has been totally and expertly expunged. The BBC Philharmonic are on form as usual, with Maxwell Davies ensuring everything is as it should be.
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see also review by William Hedley

Reviews of Maxwell Davies on Naxos