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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
The Beltane Fire (1995) [37.56]
The Turn of the Tide (1992) [24.34]
Sunday Morning (1994) [2.07]
Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner (1989) [3.29]
Sir Charles his Pavan (1992) [4.43]
Manchester Cathedral Girls Choir, Boys of Manchester Cathedral Choir, Boys of Manchester Cathedral Voluntary Choir, Choir of Manchester Grammar School
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 1992-95; Cheltenham Town Hall, 1991
NAXOS 8.572362 [72:50]

Naxos continues its commendable series of reissues of the cycle of recordings of the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. This collection of items is taken from various discs originally issued by the defunct Collins Classics label.

The rather odd assortment consists of the major score The Beltane Fire, described as a ‘choreographic poem’ and originally intended for a staged ballet, coupled with a number of occasional works written for specific occasions. One of these, the Threnody on a Plainsong, is taken from a live performance; the others were recorded for radio broadcast.

The Beltane Fire received mixed reviews on its original issue, with commendation from Michael Oliver in the Gramophone but a somewhat lukewarm reception from Nicholas Williams in the BBC Music Magazine who commented that it “does not represent the composer’s recent music at its very best.” The ballet scenario revolves around a conflict between religious Puritanism and the pagan traditions of the Orkneys represented by a folk fiddler. The music for the village elders is dour in tone and menacing but the folk influences bring welcome relief with their dance rhythms and beautifully inflected imitations of traditional melodies. On a personal level I find the result appealing even if the inspiration is patchy rather than sustained. The performance under the baton of the composer is excellent, and well recorded. One might have welcomed a separate credit for the solo violinist whose delivery of the folk dances is nicely nuanced. Richard Whitehouse in his booklet notes does not give full details of the ballet scenario, referring the listener to the composer’s own website. There are points in the score where clear references to the dramatic events onstage would clearly assist comprehension of the music. It would have been helpful to have provided at least a basic outline in the booklet itself.

The turn of the tide is another Orkney-inspired work: this time a direct plea for the defence of the environment against industrial exploitation in the tradition of Maxwell Davies’s Black Pentecost. Unlike the earlier work, it was written specifically with amateur performers in mind, and the original score included sections of improvised music written by the school pupils involved in the performance. These sections are omitted here, so what we actually hear is the framework in which the improvisations were set: a series of fifteen very short and fragmentary movements followed by a much more substantial choral conclusion. The text for this final section, to words by the composer himself, is commendably given in full in the booklet. This is just as well as the somewhat high-flown nature of the poetic writing would be pretty well indecipherable without this.

Sunday morning was written as a ‘signature tune’ for the Radio 3 programme Brian Kay’s Sunday morning and is much lighter in style. So is the occasional piece Sir Charles his Pavan written in honour of the conductor Sir Charles Groves, many of whose Manchester concerts had been attended by the composer in his teenage years. Both pieces also have hidden depths which make them much more than simply ‘occasional’ works. Much more sombre is the Threnody on a Plainsong written in honour of Michael Vyner, former artistic director of the London Sinfonietta. This was first performed six days after his death — a very touching tribute.

None of these pieces, then, are substantial works in the Maxwell Davies canon with the possible exception of Beltane Fire. At the same time none are negligible, and both the performances and recordings are of the excellent standard that was established during the original Collins series. Those who failed to acquire them on their original appearance should be grateful to Naxos for making them once again readily available. The company are to be congratulated, too, on providing excellent booklet notes. None of these works are available in alternative performances, a fact which makes this release doubly valuable. Might one hope that Naxos will now release recordings of the later three Maxwell Davies symphonies to round out their commendable work on the composer’s behalf?
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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