Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Strathclyde Concerto No. 9, Op.170 (1994)* [25.44]
Strathclyde Concerto No. 10, Op.179 (1996) [31.40]
Carolísima, Op.168 (1994)
David Nicholson* (piccolo), Elisabeth Dooner* (alto flute), Maurice Checker* (cor anglais), Josef Pacewicz* (piccolo clarinet), Ruth Ellis* (bass clarinet), Alison Green* (double bassoon)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. City Hall, Glasgow, 23-24 November 1996
NAXOS 8.572356 [77.01]
One is delighted to welcome the final issue in this series of Strathclyde Concertos to the catalogue, just in time to celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday. The original releases on Collins Classics, long unavailable, have been reissued by Naxos at a price which one hopes will tempt a whole new era of listeners who are willing to experiment. Indeed that is what Sir Peter does in these final two concertos, one scored for an ensemble of ‘secondary’ woodwind instruments and one for the whole orchestra.
The February issue of BBC Music Magazine, in an article by Paul Driver celebrating the composer’s anniversary, only mentioned the cycle of ten Strathclyde Concertos in passing, but effectively damned them with faint praise by claiming that Maxwell Davies’ music written between the years 1960 and 1980 “is the thing for posterity”. By emphasising the works of the composer’s enfant terrible period, the article failed to recognise the consolidation of style that had occurred after 1980 when Maxwell Davies had produced not only these concertos, the ‘Naxos’ string quartets, and most of his symphonies - quite apart from the whole raft of other works which this prolific composer had written during those years. The composer’s recent illness did not prevent his completion of his choral Tenth Symphony performed in February 2014, which received rave reviews from the critics when it was premièred by BBC forces under Antonio Pappano. Listening to that work, I did get the impression that the composer was rather re-treading old ground, with little in the music that sounded new; but that is decidedly not the case with the Strathclyde Concertos, where the opportunity to write for specific soloists - often playing more unusual instruments - seems to have really sparked much original thought from him.
The Ninth Concerto highlights the ‘secondary’ members of the woodwind stable, most of whom have a very limited concerto repertory in their own right. The work is in one single movement in sonata form, with a slow ‘lullaby’, interspersed with a series of solo cadenzas, taking the place of the symphonic development. The concerto also has decided elements of a tone poem, “inspired” (as the composer says in his booklet note) “by the infinite shading within the winter greys of my Orkney home, where all light is refracted and reflected back from the sea three hundred feet below.” This makes for a very evocative series of tones and images, with the various soloists not only taking virtuoso roles in their own right but also combining in a series of fascinating counterpoints. There is even an element of ‘Scotch snap’ in many of the phrases, finally resolving into the key of D flat at the end. This is a very beautiful work in its own right, one of the most immediately approachable of the Strathclyde series.
After that the Tenth Concerto is more of a conventional concerto for orchestra, insofar as the word ‘conventional’ could ever be used to describe the music of Maxwell Davies. The music flits from idea to idea through the course of its three movements, but one fears that the individual events fail to cohere into a unified whole. The perky finale is perhaps the most impressive section here. It also provides a conclusion for the cycle of concertos as a whole by reference back to material - although not direct quotations - from the earlier pieces, played by their respective soloists. In his booklet note the composer states that he has “left the door ajar for future concertos”, and we may dare to hope that he means it; but the coda provides a thoroughly satisfying triumphant culmination of the cycle, dying away with an unexpectedly quiet final few bars.
As a bonus this disc includes the occasional piece Carolísima, commissioned by the Danish consul in Edinburgh Jens Hegel as a surprise birthday present for his wife Carol (hence the title). Hegel apparently “requested that there be at least two tunes suitable for whistling, and something to dance to.” The tune initially played by solo violin at the opening indeed sounds like a Scottish folksong - and a very beautiful one, at that - but it appears to be Maxwell Davies’ own invention. The composer states that he “also played with references to Aaron Copland”, and the atmosphere of Appalachian Spring is not far away. After that we move onto more familiar Maxwell Davies territory, but there are still more Scottish influences discernible with some further tunes which have whistle-able tendencies. The results make for a very satisfying bonus.
As one has come to expect in this series, the playing by the members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the composer’s baton is superlative and responsive. The original Collins Classics recordings sound as good as ever.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Other Maxwell Davies recordings on Naxos
An interview with the composer
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