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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
Piano works: 1949-2009
Piano Sonata (1981) [26.59]
Three Sanday Places (2009) [6.50]
Five little pieces (1960-64) [6.07]
Six secret songs (1996) [6.03]
Farewell to Stromness (1980) [4.50]
Yesnaby Ground (1980) [2.09]
Five pieces (1955-56) [15.59]
An Orkney tune (2001) [1.44]
Snow cloud, over Lachan (2003) [1.10]
Sub tuam protectionem (1969) [4.52]
Ut re mi (1970) [3.30]
Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy (1978) [4.04]
Parade (1949) [27.34]
Richard Casey (piano)
includes interview between Richard Casey and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies [11.23]
rec. Peel Hall, Salford University, 24-25, 28 August 2010
PRIMA FACIE PFCD017/8 [52.58 + 70.06]

The piano music of the erstwhile Master of the Queen’s Music falls effectively into three distinct periods which slightly overlap with each other. From his earliest years we find Parade which is decidedly a student work, with the clear influences of earlier composers such as Liszt, Bartók and Prokofiev but with some anticipations of the writing to follow. There then comes the period of Maxwell Davies’ avant-garde style, beginning with the Five pieces of 1955-56 and culminating in the Piano Sonata of 1981. A year before this Maxwell Davies had composed his most popular contribution to the piano repertoire in the shape of his Farewell to Stromness, which was designed specifically for the amateur and semi-professional players he had encountered after taking up residence in the Orkney Isles. All the remainder of his writing for the instrument after 1978 has a similar purpose, being designed for players and listeners to appreciate on immediate acquaintance.

The Piano Sonata was written for Stephen Pruslin whose extensive booklet notes with this 2 CD release make the distinction between the various styles clear. Unfortunately on the discs the works from each period are intermingled – which makes for some uncomfortable jolts as the listener switches from one idiom to another. This militates against any sense of the composer’s developing changes in method over the years. This is all the more unfortunate since there are no other complete recordings of Maxwell Davies’s piano music listed in the current catalogues. Indeed some of the works here, such as the Five little pieces, Six secret songs, Snow cloud and Parade, are to be found nowhere else. Never mind; this sort of comprehensive review is just what is needed to celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday this year. One can always adjust the programming on one’s player if one wants to experience a chronological conspectus of the music - at least on any individual disc.

The student work Parade, written when Maxwell Davies was just fifteen and only recently discovered among the composer’s papers, need not detain us for long. It has been published by Schott, but it cannot be said that it adds much to our view of the mature composer although it bears testimony to his prowess as a player. It is well played by Richard Casey, but the virtuosity of the writing is its most impressive feature.

The works written between 1955 and 1981, on the other hand, are all highly complex in Maxwell Davies’s most trenchant style. None of them however are precisely on a large scale with the exception of the Piano Sonata, which can be regarded as a summary of the whole period and demonstrates the breadth of his inspiration. Stephen Pruslin’s notes inform us that the composer regarded both the Five pieces and the Five little pieces as being influenced by Schoenberg’s Five pieces, which Maxwell Davies was playing “a lot” at the time. However the last of the ‘little pieces’ looks forward to the composer’s first opera Taverner, where the main theme recurs “when the eponymous hero identifies the figure of the Jester as ‘Death, a thief’”.

The two pieces Sub tuam protectionem and Ut re mi also owe their inspiration to sixteenth century figures, John Dunstable and John Bull respectively, and may be regarded as palimpsests on the work of those composers. Both begin with literal quotation and develop in a manner that almost recalls the variation techniques of the eighteen century before moving in entirely unexpected directions.

The Piano Sonata is described by Stephen Pruslin as “directly and powerfully conceived for the instrument”. He devotes much space to an analysis of its structure which includes quotations in the final movement from two Debussy Préludes. The sonata is headed by lines from a poem by Charles Senior: “The cries of gulls curling in shoalward whirlwinds around the surging firth, are muted by croak of raven and bleat of lamb from silence to silence.” This might suggest a programmatic inspiration, but I found this hard to detect in the music which seemed to be more concerned with the working out of purely internal concerns. These include the use of palindromic techniques in the fourth movement, which like most such structural devices looks clearer on paper than in terms of sound. Although the sonata is clearly a most serious work, I am left with the impression of something that is consciously the end of an era rather than the beginning of a new one.

The new era had begun three years earlier with the little three-movement suite Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, with its evocative movement titles Calm water, Choppy seas and Safe landing. Here we are in firmly tonal territory and the suite was written for a local pianist as indeed were many of the short works which followed over the next twenty-five years. These include the famous Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground from the anti-uranium mining Yellow Cake Review. They include some other miniature gems such as the single-page Snow cloud, over Lochan written for a collection published by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Nonetheless some of these pieces bear the distinctive Maxwell Davies hallmark. An example of this is to be found in the final movement of the Six secret songs with its proliferation of notes invading the basically diatonic idiom to produce a clustered discord before it suddenly clears.

The playing of Richard Casey, as far as I can tell without scores, seems to be absolutely faultless. I must however enter a slight caveat regarding the recording quality. While the earlier works are fine, the later pieces seem to suffer from a slightly claustrophobic and airless acoustic. This may have been a deliberate attempt to mimic the sound of an upright piano - on which probably most of these pieces would have been first played. As we know Maxwell Davies relishes the sound of a ‘honky-tonk’ piano; but somehow I feel that these short miniatures might have benefited from a more obviously resonant and ‘grand’ sound. The Farewell to Stromness, for example, is heard to better advantage elsewhere.

Nevertheless this is a valuable collection, with no competition in the current catalogues. Its documentary value is enhanced by the interview between pianist and composer which concludes the second disc. Stephen Pruslin’s eleven-page essay on Peter Maxwell Davies and the Piano is valuable too; it bears a copyright date of 2013, which might serve to explain the considerable delay in the release of this disc which was recorded some four years ago.

Paul Corfield Godfrey