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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
Music for Brass
March: The Pole Star for brass quintet (1982) [3:44]
Litany for a Ruined Chapel between Sheep and Shore for trumpet solo (1999) [10:31]
Sea Eagle for horn solo (1982) [8:31]
Tallis: Four Voluntaries arranged for brass quintet (1982) (Veni Redemptor gentium I [1:55]; Ex More Docti Mistico [1:56]; Ecce Tempus [1:24]; Veni Redemptor gentium II [2:13])
Fanfare for Lowry for two solo trumpets (2000) [3:53]
Brass Quintet (1981) [34:40]
The Wallace Collection (John Wallace and John Miller (trumpets), Paul Gardham (horn), Simon Gunton (trombone), Robin Haggart (tuba))
rec. 23-25 January 2001, St Marylebone Church except Litany, 3 September 1999, Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London.
NIMBUS NI5936 [68:54]

Maxwell Davies has always had a special feeling for brass instruments. His Op. 1 was a trumpet sonata. He has written concertos for horn, trumpet and the two together. Listeners to his orchestral music have become familiar with his characteristic use of brass: intricate, often screamingly high trumpet lines, unbelievably agile and chromatic horn parts and a free-ranging tuba, or sometimes two, in the depths below. Perhaps his trombone writing is less distinctive but the instrument imposes its own character on all composers. So a collection of his brass works for smaller forces is very welcome.

The core of this collection is works for the quintet of two trumpets with one horn, trombone and tuba, which he clearly sees as the brass equivalent of the string quartet or the woodwind quintet. Most of this music dates from the early 1980s, when the composer wrote his Brass Quintet, his major work for this ensemble. The other works of the period can be seen as satellites to this.

We begin with The Pole Star. This starts as if it were another vigorous march in the tradition of Elgar and Walton, though with some surprising harmonies. However, its syncopations and rhythmic dislocations go beyond what one could actually march to, so it becomes, in a manner analogous to Chopin’s waltzes, more a picture of a march than a march itself. It is a fine and exhilarating work.

Throughout his career Maxwell Davies has written works for solo instruments. I still cherish hopes that they will all one day be gathered onto a single CD, but anyway here we have the two for brass. Litany for a Ruined Chapel between Sheep and Shore was suggested by the location of his new home on the Orkney island of Sanday, to which he moved in 1999. He says he imagined it being played in the ruin, ‘open to the skies, in the vast stillness of that haunted land and seascape’. This is actually a three movement sonata for solo trumpet. I detect a faint influence of Messiaen’s clarinet writing in Abīme des Oiseaux, the solo clarinet piece from the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, also perhaps of the flexible and lyrical use of the trumpet in jazz, though I write here under correction. There is little or none of the fanfare and declamatory writing which is more usual for the trumpet. The writing is very varied and it sounds extremely technically demanding. John Wallace delivers it with panache.

In his first Orkney home Maxwell Davies was able to observe sea eagles. This is a large and majestic bird — technically the white-tailed eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla — and his work is intended to convey something of this. This is also a three movement sonata, but quite different from the previous piece. The idiom here is closer to that of the solo horn in Britten’s Serenade or even to the cor anglais solo in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan, but rethought in a more cheerful mood.

The Tallis voluntaries are arranged for brass quintet from keyboard works in the Mulliner Book, which comes from the middle of the sixteenth century. They are based on plainsong, introduced by the trombone in three of the four pieces, and then elaborated by the other instruments. They are grave and beautiful works.

The Fanfare for Lowry for two trumpets is an occasional work, written for the Lowry Arts Centre in Salford, where both Lowry and Maxwell Davies hail from. It is effective within its own terms but is much the slightest work here. There is a Lowry as the cover picture for this CD.

So to the Brass Quintet, the composer’s major work for this combination. This is written in his densest and most serious style. I must confess that the first time I heard it I could make nothing of it. However, when I tried again and concentrated on the principal line, as led mainly by the horn, the rest fell into place. It helps to follow with the score, which is published by Chester. This is in fact a lyrical work, though with wider intervals than in most actual vocal music. The two trumpets contribute mainly fantastically elaborate decorations, while the trombone occasionally alternates with the horn in taking the lead. The tuba, while usually providing the bass, has adventures of its own. The writing is quite bold, for example including flutter-tonguing and trills on all the instruments, but there are no extreme techniques beyond these. I should here point out that Paul Griffiths’ generally helpful sleeve-note, in discussing this work, keeps referring to the second trombone and the two trombones. There is in fact no second trombone; the ensemble is the brass quintet as set out above.

All these works receive fine and confident performances in a generous acoustic from The Wallace Collection or members of it. The composer was present at the recordings. Readers will notice that the recording dates go back at least fourteen years and may wonder what has been going on. In fact, most of these performances used to be available as downloads or custom-burned CDs from the original version of the composer’s website Maxopus. This was a wonderful innovation which I wish other contemporary composers would copy; I bought several CDs from the site myself. When, after an interval, the site was re-launched, this facility was, sad to say, no longer offered. So when The Wallace Collection was itself re-launched in May 2014, it got itself together with Nimbus and has produced these recordings as a normal commercial CD. We should all be grateful and hope that others of the composer’s works which used to be available from the Maxopus website will also find commercial release.

Stephen Barber



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