Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Symphony No. 10 Alla ricerca di Borromini (2014) [42:12]
Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
Symphony No 10 (1988) [15:39]
Markus Butter (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
rec. 2014, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0767 [57:51]
Two tenth symphonies, one, Panufnik’s, certainly the composer’s last, the other quite possibly so too, as Maxwell Davies was seriously ill during its composition. It was touch and go whether he would live to finish it. Iin other ways they are greatly contrasted: Maxwell Davies here offers one of his largest symphonies, while Panufnik’s is a compact single movement. Both composers show an interest in basing music on geometrical ideas.
Maxwell Davies’ symphony is subtitled Alla ricerca di Borromini, In search of Borromini. Borromini was an architect (1599-1667) of the early baroque period, whose principal works are churches in Rome. They draw on geometrical features sometimes with symbolic meanings. He was said to be melancholic and short-tempered and he died by suicide. Maxwell Davies was a student of Petrassi in Rome in the late 1950s, where he was introduced to Borromini’s work which gave him a fascination with turning architectural ideas into sound. There are some points of comparison with Maxwell Davies’ great opera Taverner, which also deals with a creative artist who came to a – quite different – bad end. There are some echoes of that work here.
It is in four Parts – Maxwell Davies does not call them movements – which play continuously but are clearly distinguished.
- Part One: Adagio [15:26]
- Part Two: Allegro [7:26]
- Part Three: Presto [4:59]
- Part Four: Adagio [14:21]
There is a brooding opening, which begins very quietly – you may have to turn the volume up – which features bass instruments, with a contrabass clarinet providing a particularly sepulchral voice. Over this rise ravishing short solo passages and also some of Maxwell Davies’ characteristic high trumpet flourishes. These lead to a Mahlerian threnody with eloquent strings and considerable use of metallic percussion. Abruptly the mood changes and the second Part begins as the chorus enters with the words of a Sonnetto (a short poem but longer than a sonnet) attacking Borromini’s work. I thought of the critics’ section of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, but here we have a fast homophonic passage, very vocal in Maxwell Davies’ modal idiom. This is answered by the solo baritone using Borromini’s words to defend his work. This is agile but lyrical: Maxwell Davies can and does write a real singing line.
This leads directly into the third Part, which is purely orchestral. Here we have a dialogue or perhaps a confrontation between passages mainly for the wind with others for a group of tuned percussion who play together with a gamelan-like effect, Maxwell Davies having obviously heard Messiaen’s Turangalīla-symphonie and Chronochromie to some purpose. The fourth Part is again vocal and begins with another homophonic setting, this time of a Leopardi sonnet (though in sixteen lines) about loss of hope. This leads into the baritone chanting words from Borromini’s last testament in which he describes stabbing himself with a sword. However, against this the chorus list the names of his churches, his achievements.
His symphony, in honouring Borromini, therefore treats of artistic creation, the misunderstandings which beset it, and the power to create despite personal weaknesses.
I am not always enthusiastic about issuing recordings of world premieres, which is what we have here. The archival value is obvious, but so is the potential for mishaps, and there is a risk of perpetuating a work in what may be its only recording in an unsatisfactory performance or without revisions which the composer would like to make. However, in this case this is a well-prepared and satisfying performance and remarkably accurate for such a complex work – I listened with a score. The chorus and orchestra are quite brilliant; I could wish that Markus Butter had articulated his part more clearly. I had not thought of Pappano as interested in championing new works and was very pleased with his assured conducting and obvious commitment.
The work itself will take some getting to know. Maxwell Davies’ first seven symphonies form a loosely knit cycle of abstract works. The last three, including this one, are more programmatic. But symphonies 7 to 9 have not as yet been commercially recorded, which makes it harder to appreciate this one in context.
Panufnik has been more fortunate. All ten of his symphonies have been recorded, some of them several times. There is a complete cycle under Borowicz for the indefatigable CPO label, and this recording is the fourth of this particular work. It is a white dwarf compared to the red giant of Maxwell Davies’ symphony. It is in one continuous movement, divided into four sections but, as with Sibelius’ seventh symphony, it feels a unified whole. It opens with brass fanfares but then soon subsides into a quieter mood, which builds up very gradually until about two thirds of the way through there is an outburst of explosive chords interspersed with furious drumming. This is very exciting. There is then a gradual but shorter withdrawal. I did wonder whether it was partly a response to Lutosławki’s third symphony, written a few years earlier – Panufnik and Lutosławki were friends and colleagues during the war years. The idiom is similar and some passages, such as the opening fanfares and the repeated chords, seemed similar. This is not to detract from the coherence and integrity of Panufnik’s work, which is not at all derivative, but simply to point to a similarity.
Pappano again gives a confident performance of this exhilarating work. The LSO commissioned several works from Panufnik, though not this particular one – it was written for Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They did commission the Maxwell Davies symphony, together with the orchestra of Santa Cecilia in Rome, Pappano’s team when he is not conducting at Covent Garden, and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra in Moscow. UBS also supported the Maxwell Davies and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute the Panufnik. The LSO engineers have done a good job with the acoustics of Barbican Hall – I listened in normal stereo. We should be grateful to the sponsors and to the LSO for making these performances available and hope there will be many more.