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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Suite from The Boyfriend (1971) [26:11]
Suite from The Devils (1971) [20:23]
Seven In Nomine (1965) [16:18]
The Yellow Cake Revue (1980) excerpts: Yesnaby Ground [2:27];
Farewell to Stromness [5:41]
Aquarius/Nicholas Cleobury; Peter Maxwell Davies (piano) (Yellow Cake Revue)
rec. EMI Studios, Abbey Road, London, England, October 1989; details for Yellow Cake Revue unavailable. Previously released on Collins Classics.
NAXOS 8.572408 [71:02]

Will the real Maxwell Davies please stand up? Such is the variety of styles on this CD that one is not sure of the identity of the composer. Yet, the works presented here, as well as the composer’s major symphonies, concertos, and string quartets, demonstrate clearly the wide diversity of a genuine voice.

I first became acquainted with the music of Maxwell Davies through a concert that included his An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, still likely his most popular work. I will never forget seeing the bagpiper emerge from the back of the hall at the end of the piece. My next experience was even more special, when the composer came to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in April 1995 for a brief pre-concert lecture on his Symphony No. 5. Maxwell Davies alluded to the northern atmosphere of the symphony, including the cries of seagulls at one point. The concert itself with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer (his 1988 Trumpet Concerto with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist and the Symphony No. 5) alternating with Yan Pascal Tortelier (Ravel and Debussy) is deeply ingrained in my memory. So, I have tended to associate Maxwell Davies with his folkish Scottish pieces and his symphonies.

This disc, however, shows that there are many sides to him – a man once considered a firebrand and now Master of the Queen’s Music. Of the works here, I am particularly taken with Seven In Nomine. In seven fairly brief sections, Maxwell Davies was able to create the sound of the Renaissance on one hand and the twentieth-century on the other. These pieces are based on the melody of the Gloria Tibi Trinitas, as heard in a mass by John Taverner. They are delicately scored for wind quintet, string quartet and harp, in various combinations and in most of them the antiphon melody is apparent. The performance by the Aquarius ensemble under Nicholas Cleobury is expert. These musicians are also responsible for the suites from the scores for the Ken Russell films, The Boyfriend and The Devils. Again there is a real contrast in the composer’s scores, as befits the subject matter. The former produces the light-hearted sound of the dance band — and very well, I might add — while the latter is much more serious and sinister. The Suite from The Devils even includes an unnamed soprano singing a Sanctus in the Sister Jeanne’s Vision movement. Richard Whitehouse contributes a detailed analysis of these suites in his booklet notes and I also refer you to Rob Barnett’s and John France’s reviews of the CD on this website.

Returning to more familiar territory, the disc concludes with two of Maxwell Davies’ delightful piano pieces taken from The Yellow Cake Revue. They are short, but memorable, and performed authoritatively by the composer. My first CD of his music was entitled A Celebration of Scotland on the Unicorn-Kanchana label. In addition to An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, it includes, among many other Scottish pieces, Yesnaby Ground and Farewell to Stromness, both performed by the composer. I compared those performances with the ones on this CD, whose provenance is not listed, and they are different accounts. The ones here seem slightly broader and in better sound — warmer and more present.

In any case, fans of Maxell Davies can only be grateful to Naxos for transferring the large amount of his music previously issued on the defunct Collins Classics label — where I have the Symphony No. 5, Chat Moss, Cross Lane Fair, and Five Klee Pictures; all, but Chat Moss, are now on various Naxos discs. If you are collecting this series, do not hesitate to add this rather unusual, but fascinating selection of less well-known works.

Leslie Wright

Previous reviews: John France and Rob Barnett

Maxwell Davies on Naxos - reviews