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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
March: The Pole Star (1982) [3:44]
Litany for a Ruined Chapel between Sheep and Shore (1999) [10:33]
Sea Eagle (1982) [8:32]
Tallis: Four Voluntaries (1982) [7:29]
Fanfare for Lowry (2000) [3:53]
Brass Quintet (1981) [34:42]
The Wallace Collection
rec. 20-25 January 2001, St Marylebone Church except Litany, rec. 3 September 1999, Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London.

Veteran ensemble of numerous fine recordings on a variety of labels, The Wallace Collection is still going strong, with new generations of players included in its educational activities, and a serious platform of publications and projects seeing it “reborn for the 21st century.” This release never appeared after being recorded way back in 2001, but it has the added kudos of having been ‘recorded in the presence of the composer’.

Peter Maxwell Davies has a long and distinguished career in which few if any instruments of the orchestra have failed to receive attention at one time or another, but brass instruments have played a significant part in his output over the years. Compact in duration but full of intriguing material and compositional techniques the March: The Pole Star is the perfect overture for this programme, the title taken from that of the Northern Lighthouse Board ship stationed in Orkney. John Wallace performs the solo written for him, Litany for a Ruined Chapel between Sheep and Shore, a piece Davies imagined being performed in a ruin close to his Orkney home, “open to the skies, in the vast stillness of that haunted land and seascape.” This is indeed an atmospheric work, especially in the mood of its central Lento, and the rather distant recording lends itself to its concept whether deliberately or not.

The horn solo Sea Eagle might be seen as a partner work in its Orkney-based vision of the great bird in flight. Well disguised plainsong themes are used as a starting point, but with some stunning virtuoso moments this is also a solo sonata with dramatic breadth of range and scope of colour and rhythmic variety. This recording also sounds as if it was made from the balcony of the hall rather than at close and more detail-capturing quarters, but it still has a fine effect and a terrific impact at its most dramatic.

Competition for these solos can be found in more immediate sounding recordings on recital discs such as that of remarkable trumpet player Mark O’Keeffe’s on Delphian DCD34049, or horn player Dave Lee’s eclectic programme on Nimbus NI 6151. There’s also Etienne Cutajar on the Divine Art label (review), but as with all of the works here there are few enough comparisons to be had, and the performances on this CD are fine, if a little oddly balanced.

The remainder of the works here all appear as première recordings. Four Voluntaries turns to the Tudor polyphony of Tallis, with its scrunchy meeting of medieval modality and major/minor tonal relationships. These pieces open with quotes from medieval hymn tunes and the work of Tallis, but develop and explore the idiom into music that sounds written for brass rather than for the human voice. Fanfare for Lowry for two trumpets is more closely identifiable as by Davies, though its often yearning dissonances marry well with the Tallis heard previously. It is always surprising how much musical interest can be derived from the sparing nature of a two-part composition, but the richness of Davies’s invention is nicely on show here.

The final and most substantial work here is the Brass Quintet from 1981, and the initiator of the “spray of pieces that came in the wake of that major effort” heard previously in this programme. As Davies has said, all of this work’s musical foundations or ‘seeds’ can be found in its slow music, the opening Adagio with its enigmatic intervals and secretive trills opening translucent doors on its inner world, the light shining through which inform and permeate its content. To quote Davies, it provides “a work of real chamber music, in so far as the players are involved in the intimate kind of music-making associated with a string quartet.” Conversations, solos and other little exchanges often create an animated impression, while the sense of something monumental being built is kept for the slow polyphony and variation forms of the extended central Adagio flessibile. The final Allegro vivace starts with something of ‘the rondo character proper to a finale’, but this is by no means an easy release. Remote sounding tonalities and an atmosphere of unwelcoming landscapes, even where the music is at its most energetic, collectively maintain a character of beautiful aloofness. At no point are we riding home with the promise of a warm fire in front of which we can warm our extremities, but the journey is one which sends our minds on a significant inner search.

This is an impressively performed programme of some of the best music for brass the late 20th century has to offer. These are pieces which invite exploration, revealing their secrets at their own pace but also delivering spaces in which the listener’s own reflections play a large role.

Dominy Clements
Previous review: Stephen Barber



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