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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (1934-2016)
Concert Overture: Ebb of Winter (2013) [17:41]
Hill Runes (1981) [8:06]
Last Door of Light (2008) [16:38]
Farewell to Stromness (1980) [4:26]
An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise (1984) [12:34]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Ben Gernon
Sean Shibe (guitar: Runes)
Robert Jordan (bagpipes: Wedding)
rec. 14-16 September 2015, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK
LINN CKD534 [59:47]

This release has a special poignancy, having been prepared and recorded very much with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s involvement only five months before he passed away. As remarked in the booklet, his decade long collaboration with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was a defining one, and works such as the ten Strathclyde Concertos, written with its talented musicians in mind, remain significant additions to the 20th century orchestral canon.

The overture Ebb of Winter was written for the SCO’s fortieth anniversary in 2014, and indeed composed, while treatment for Maxwell Davies’s leukaemia was underway in the spring and summer of 2013. The restless nature of the music is reflected in his description of the work as one of rebirth: “spring was just starting to come in. The weather and climate in Orkney changed day by day, when I went out for a walk with my dog. The piece is a reaction to the Orkney climate and influenced by Orkney folk music.” This is by no means ‘folksy’ music, and doesn’t inhabit the lighter world of An Orkney Wedding, but snappy rhythms and moments of open harmony are a constant reminder of remote source materials, as much as the moments of intense, dramatically still atmosphere are reminders of the ancient landscapes, over which we roam for our brief span. While it is a welcome relief to see this ‘Concert Overture’ at the top of the programme, this is a far more wide-ranging and symphonic work than this appellation would seem to imply.

Hill Runes was written for Julian Bream with five movements or sections that each refer to lines of poetry by George Mackay Brown. This is a work, filled with remarkably skilful writing for guitar, though its tradition steps away consciously from Spanish traditions of playing, looking more towards the counterpoint of the lute music, which is more a product of British names such as John Dowland. Angular but deeply expressive, this is not really Dowland-esque in its effect, though the longer Adagio molto does seem to be searching comparable emotional realms of love and loss. Staying with Sean Shibe’s superlative guitar playing, the Farewell to Stromness, a deservedly popular transcription of a cabaret piece originally for piano, is a tune that Maxwell Davies said he would be content to be remembered by. Given the context here it can’t help but bring a tear to the eye, as it was the only music played at Maxwell Davies’s funeral. Farewell indeed.

Last Door of Light is part of a series of “environmentally-inspired” works, in this case a tone poem the title of which comes from George Mackay Brown’s Thorfinn that describes the death at sea of Orkney’s 11th century Earl Thorfinn Sigurdsson as a “salt key in his last door of light”. Maxwell Davies’s piece is “a meditation on such individual and communal vulnerability” as is exposed to the wrecking and destructive power of the sea, implying drama through passages of relatively restrained turbulence, but always with an eye on that distant and enigmatic horizon that stands for the temporal nature of our lives and our exposed dwellings.

An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise is a “joyous and show-stopping” piece that describes in some detail a wedding, complete with terrible weather, considerable amounts of whisky drinking and drunken music-making, and rounded off with a final procession home complete with bagpipes. This is a performance both refined and deliciously decadent, with all of the whoops and staggering around demanded of the narrative, but done with nicely balanced taste and style.

As I have said, this is a release that any fan of Peter Maxwell Davies will want, whatever the alternative recordings available – and of these there are precious few for most of these pieces. An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise has its classic, characterful and witty recording conducted by the composer on Naxos (review), and while dedicatee Julian Bream recorded Hill Runes, this seems to be unavailable at the moment. As a final salute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies it could hardly be bettered.

Dominy Clements

 




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