Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934) Black Pentecost [54:00] Stone Litany [22:44]
Della Jones (mezzo); David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. BBC Studio 7, Manchester, September 1992 NAXOS 8.572359 [76:44]
Black Pentecost is an imposing but unremittingly grim work. It’s also a political statement against capitalism and the destruction it can bring to the environment. The opening section is an orchestral introduction that gets the listener in the right frame of mind for what is to unfold. At 18 minutes long this is very much a symphonic opening movement, starting with hushed strings and building into a tense and dramatic musical arch. Those aware of the composer’s symphonies will pretty much know what to expect. The scoring and musical content are both dark and mysterious. The scene has now been set and the following three movements are scored for orchestra with vocal soloists. This is where the political points are made against the potential industrial ruination of the Orkneys. As the work progresses the music becomes even bleaker, especially in the closing movement, with the composer’s use of the vocal lines fully matching the unnerving text by George Mackay Brown. The music fades into silence with the mezzo-soprano describing the degradation of the “brave new world”. This is certainly not easy listening but the work can be appreciated after one hearing. There’s nothing off-putting about the musical language used and there is something quite gripping, evil and direct about the whole thing. Soloists and orchestra do the piece justice.
Stone Litany is a symphonic work in a single movement containing seven sections. Three of these sections are purely orchestral and a further four utilise the vocalist, not as a conveyor of text but as an obbligato line to merge with the sounds of the orchestra. The orchestration is lush, bright and shimmering. It is also original and peculiarly inventive - listen, for example, to the flexatone in the opening prelude. I’ve not come across this instrument since Khachaturian employed it in his piano concerto. The silky vocal melisma is beautifully sung by Della Jones and the playing of the BBC Philharmonic for the composer is top class, as it is in Black Pentecost. The work as a whole doesn’t have the gripping quality of Black Pentecost but the music is atmospheric and communicative. Amusingly the final movement is aptly called 'Max the Mighty'.
The recording is fairly typical of Collins Classics. It’s cut at a very low level but the quality is smooth and evocative with a natural balance. The opening of Black Pentecost is so quiet that I wondered whether or not the CD was actually playing for several seconds. Turn the volume up and the effect is splendid.