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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
Symphony No.10 – Alla ricerca di Borromini (2013-14) (world premiere recording) [42:12]
Sir Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
Symphony No.10 (1988) [15:39]
Markus Butter (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live Barbican, London, 2 February 2014 and 19 October 2014. DSD/DDD.
Texts included
LSO LSO0767 SACD [57:51]

Sound samples and interview available from LSO Live.

My comments should be read in tandem with Stephen Barber’s review. Like him I shall need to take some time to assimilate Peter Maxwell Davies’ Tenth Symphony: it’s not one of his more approachable works but it is impressive and it is well worth keeping trying.

All the texts refer to or were written by the architect Borromini, so it’s hardly surprising that the overall architecture of the symphony is its most important aspect. I didn’t see the relevance of some of the texts but Stephen Barber’s concept of the power to create despite personal weakness makes sense: Maxwell Davies had to struggle to complete the work during and after treatment for leukaemia. The fourth and final section brings a sense of repose arising from anguish, with the account of Borromini’s injuring himself counterpoised against the list of his achievements.

This is the premiere recording of the Maxwell Davies but we already had a recording of the short Panufnik work, coupled with his Symphony No.2 and Symphony No.3 (CPO 7776832 – review). I’ve seen it suggested that the composer’s muse had deserted him by comparison with the earlier symphonies, though that’s not Rob Barnett’s view in his review of the CPO recording and it was not my feeling, either. The music is more immediate in its appeal than the Maxwell Davies, though there’s plenty of power in its conciseness, too. Composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centenary, the music is based on the Fibonacci ‘golden ellipse’. I’m afraid that my own grasp of geometry – or of economics, where it apparently underlies the study of price increases – doesn’t reach that far, so I have to take that on trust. In any case, you don’t have to worry too much about the programme to appreciate the music.

There is, of course, no benchmark version of the Maxwell Davies: if there is to be another recording, this will be the benchmark and I’ve no reason to believe that it’s likely to be bettered as a performance. Those principally attracted to the Panufnik should consider the rival CPO recording.

I listened to the stereo SACD layer both from my Cambridge blu-ray player on one system and from my Pioneer SACD player on the other. Played thus the recording is good but not without some of the typical Barbican haze – with music this unfamiliar and dense it’s hard to be sure. I also tried the CD layer and that sounds fine, too.

The chunky booklet comes with useful notes, partly taken from the Barbican programmes, and the texts of the Maxwell Davies.

If you are still not sure if this is for you, subscribers to Qobuz can stream the recording, with booklet, there; if you require only 16-bit CD-quality sound their download price of 7.99 represents a small saving on the cost of the physical disc, typically around 8.75, though it’s on offer as I write from one dealer for 7. Similarly, subscribers to can stream the recording in 16- and 24-bit sound, with the booklet; again the 16-bit download is worth considering at 7.99 but the 24-bit at 15.99 is seriously over-priced.

The economics of downloading as against the physical product continue to be a bafflement. The least expensive way to obtain the 16-bit version is from, at 6.50, with booklet, though even their 24-bit equivalent costs more than the SACD, at 9.75.

Not an immediate recommendation, then, but the music is well worth persevering with.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Stephen Barber


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