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Tansy DAVIES (b. 1973)
Dune of Footprints for string orchestra (2017) [13:58]
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Karen Kamensek
Nature (2012) [19:56]
Huw Watkins (piano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen
What did we see? (Suite from Between Worlds) (2018) [25:41]
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Karen Kamensek
Re-greening for large singing orchestra (2015) [8:37]
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Rec. 2014, CBSO Centre, Birmingham (Nature), 2015, Royal Albert Hall, London (Re-greening), 2018 Marmorsalen, Sentralen, Oslo (Dune of Footprints and What did we see?)
NMC D260 [68:26]

Tansy Davies has been steadily making a reputation since her first success, Neon in 2004, but this is the first time I have come across her music. It is very impressive. Here we have a group of recent works which show off her skill in orchestral writing and her ability to grab the audience with her engaging and impressive ideas.

Dune of Footprints was suggested by a visit to the Cave of Niaux in South-Western France. This is an extensive cave complex with prehistoric paintings of horses, bison and ibex. Davies became fascinated by the ripples and mounds of the sand and rock under her feet and thought about the flow of water and of human feet. The piece begins with deep growls and menacing noises, rather like a work by Birtwistle. A regular ticking pattern is established and disappears. Shimmering strings replace the growls. This moves forward in a series of waves. Certain chords recur and there is a plentiful use of tremolo. I was reminded at times of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean and also of the Sixth Symphony of Peter Maxwell Davies (no relation). My reservation is that the work seems in some ways like a prelude to something which never actually happens. Still, it is a striking piece.

Nature is a one movement concerto for piano and ten players. Davies writes that the piano here possibly represents a maenad. The ancient maenads were female followers of the god Dionysus, who went into the mountains at night to perform ecstatic ceremonies (the Bacchae of Euripides is the classic example). This is a kind of night music, with a distant debt to Bartók’s pieces of that kind, but with a kind of dialogue between the piano and the ensemble which suggests to me the slow movement of Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, Orpheus taming the beasts as Liszt suggested. There is an extended piano cadenza before a peaceful ending with a trickling cascade of water music.

What did we see? is a suite from a short opera, Between Worlds, based on the 9/11 terrorist attack. It is in four movements, the first much longer than the other three put together. The long movement is full of menace, with throbbing rhythms and wild cries from the wind and brass. It ends with a pounding climax. The whole piece reminded me of Varèse’s Amériques, and if you like that, you will like this. The other movements are less frenetic, and the third has an interesting structure in which a four-note motif high in the strings is continually challenged and undermined by dark forces which eventually overwhelm it.

Re-greening was the result of a commission by the National Youth Orchestra, always a very large band, for a work for them to both play and sing without a conductor. It is a celebration of spring and, Davies informs us, follows the Shamanic Wheel of the Year, which is the cycle of the main solar events, the solstices and equinoxes, as observed by the neo-Pagan movement. There is a constant sense of things growing and developing, and the two songs come in quite naturally. This is a joyous work.

The performances, although from various occasions and venues, all seem assured and the recordings are good and well-matched. The booklet note gives an account of Davies’ career with a tantalizing list of several other works I would like to hear. Unfortunately, it does not include the words of the two songs in Re-greening; however, they are well-known: Summer is Icumen icumen in and the Tallis canon. I hope to hear a good deal more of Davies’ music.

Stephen Barber

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