Earlier this year I welcomed the reissue by Naxos of these recordings of Maxwell Davies’s ten Strathclyde Concertos, hoping that the traversal might be completed by 2014 as a fitting commemoration of the composer’s eightieth birthday. Well, we seem to be well on track for that, with this issue of the fourth disc in the series (reviews of 3 & 4 and 5 & 6) and only Nos. 9 and 10 (8.572356) to come. We must hope that while we have the Second Concerto (Cello) on 8.573017 that the First (Oboe) will also be rescued by Naxos; it was issued on Unicorn-Kanchana DKP-CD9085. The demise of Collins Classics - on which label many of the composer’s recordings were originally issued - removed from the catalogue a great many valuable discs. It is to the great credit of Naxos they have over the years so assiduously re-released this extensive series of treasures.
The seventh and eighth concertos in the series highlight as soloists two of the more intractable solo instruments in the repertoire. Both have an unfortunate tendency to disappear beneath any sort of richness in the orchestral texture. Maxwell Davies has accordingly not been able to employ his usual battery of instrumental effects. The result in the concerto for double-bass does not altogether avoid an impression of greyness in the accompaniment. The work takes the form of an extended rhapsody in two movements, and the double-bass only really comes to the fore where it is in its highest and least characteristic register. Here the dedicatee Duncan McTier sounds positively like a cello in places. Although his skill and commitment are never in doubt the concerto does not make the sort of impression that one might have hoped even in the more lively passages.
The concerto for bassoon, on the other hand, is a triumph. It is more conventionally structured and manages successfully to overcome any suggestion that the bassoon might be a “problem instrument”. This remark deserves some explanation. In its lowest register, the bassoon is not really capable of much subtle nuance. In its higher reaches it has a plaintive quality which can successfully sound like a whining beggar - as in the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade - or a rustic pipe - as at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Rite of spring - but lacks any sense of warmth. In the middle register, where it is at its most expressive, the mellow sound can easily be covered by other instruments. Maxwell Davies here wisely omits oboes from his score while allowing the bassoon soloist to “come through”. Vivaldi wrote a barrow-load of concertos for bassoon, but his orchestra - usually just strings - allowed the instrument to emerge without any need to push the tone. In the early nineteenth century, Beethoven asked his bassoons to sound heroic - in the reprise of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. This attempt was found so unsatisfactory that later conductors added horns to the relevant passage. They still do so today on occasions, such as in Barenboim’s cycle at the Proms last year.
Maxwell Davies does not attempt to make his soloist sound heroic. He also manages to sidestep the impression of the bassoon as the “clown of the orchestra” as which it is sometimes typecast. The lyrical writing for the soloist, only occasionally breaking out into more florid figurations, suits the instrument like a glove. It contrasts well with the more vigorous accompaniment with a prominent role for the timpani. Nor is audibility ever a problem, and although in the lively opening to the finale the excellent Ursula Leveaux is clearly struggling to make herself heard in places she invariably succeeds. This is indeed a very beautiful work, and a thoroughly successful attempt to marry the bassoon with a modern orchestra.
The disc concludes with A spell for green corn. Although it does not form part of the cycle of Strathclyde Concertos - which oddly does not include a work for solo violin - it forms, as Richard Whitehouse observes in an excellent booklet note, a sort of pendant to the series - “very much in its orbit.” Its form, opening with a meditative violin solo leading to a series of folkdances, is partly reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ The lark ascending with a more upbeat ending. This is immediately approachable music. Here Maxwell Davies employs a larger orchestra -one might even welcome a more substantial body of strings in places - and the result glitters and sparkles. This is indeed a work that might well find popular favour to match the composer’s Farewell to Stromness and Orkney wedding with sunrise. It was also included with other popular Maxwell Davies pieces on the Collins album Mavis in Las Vegas - shown on Archiv as a performance with the BBC Philharmonic, but in fact the same recording as here. It would surely go down well at the Proms; perhaps next year. It was written in celebration of Maxwell Davies’s sixtieth birthday, and would surely prove a fitting tribute to his eightieth.
In the meantime let us be grateful to Naxos for their continuing championship of this composer. I look forward to future bounty from the same source.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
And a second review ...
The set of ten Strathclyde Concertos came into being following a commission from the Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and were composed between 1987 and 1996. They include six for solo instruments (oboe, cello, clarinet, flute, double bass and bassoon), double concertos for horn and trumpet and violin and viola, one for woodwind sextet, with the cycle completed by one for orchestra.
I well remember the first double bass concerto I heard. It was on an old vinyl disc and was by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) - he wrote three. I found it weird. It sounded artificial to me; as if it had been written merely to prove it could be done, though I’m sure that was not the case. However, there were no such thoughts going through my head when I listened to the Master of the Queen's Music’s Strathclyde Concerto No.7. The facility with which soloist plays is massively impressive with Duncan McTier - to whom the concerto is dedicated - making it sound easy to get round the huge instrument in a starring role when usually it is merely a chorus member. The sumptuously rich sounds that both composer and soloist coax from the instrument has it sound more like a cello at times and sometimes even close to a viola. The music is beautifully lyrical, though with its share of the mournful and the terse sections. Characteristic references appear regularly in Sir Peter’s works identifying his huge affection for his adopted country. What it shows is that though it is an instrument that is mostly confined to a ‘background’ role the double bass deserves having more composers explore its potential as a solo instrument. In the right hands it can reveal considerable beauty.
The eighth concerto, for bassoon, is also played here by its dedicatee and opens with a flurry of notes from the strings and woodwind. The soloist then enters with a darkly serious cry from the heart, the accompanying instruments mirroring the sombre mood. That mood gradually changes becoming lighter before timpani break through to signal another direction with bassoon, strings and woodwind sharing the action. After some false climaxes the movement fades away. The much shorter second movement opens with a pithy statement from the soloist. This expands and despite various attempts to undermine its role by the strings and timpani the bassoon maintains its course towards a gentle close. The last movement opens with a cadenza which shows the technical capabilities of the soloist to great effect. The orchestra gradually interrupts the bassoon’s musing but neither the orchestra nor outbursts from its timpani can alter the soloist’s course towards a plaintive finish. As with the double bass there are not so many concertos for bassoon but this superb addition to its repertoire shows that it should be given a starring role more often.
One of Sir Peter’s wonderful Scottish folk-influenced works closes the disc. Its inspiration is taken from George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry. This is prefaced by the line “Let not plough be put to acre except a fiddle cross first the furrow”. A Spell for Green Corn is a marvellously evocative work for violin and orchestra and is from the same stable as his 1985 work An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise and Farewell to Stromness. A review in the Wiener Zeitung in 1994 said of it that “... this seemingly simple music conjures up a magic which probably only those who know the Orkneys can fully comprehend. And yet it is neither a question of colour nor of patriotism but of music rooted in the nature and the people of the Orkneys. For me, with its easily grasped tunes and grand, even anthem-like architecture, it is one of the loveliest, most satisfying violin concertos of the twentieth century at the very least.” Fulsome praise indeed but fully deserved. I shall not attempt to describe it any better. Once again it is played on this disc by the soloist who gave its première but who is not, this time, its dedicatee. That honour went to the fiddler Donald MacDonald, hence the subtitle The MacDonald Dances. The disc, previously issued on Collins Classics, and recorded in 1993 is as fresh as when it was first released. With the composer at the helm it is as authoritative as it gets and chock full of brilliant playing by both soloists and orchestra.
Maxwell Davies on Naxos reviews