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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (1934-2016) 
Renaissance and Baroque Realisations
The Fires of London/Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. 29-31 January 1980, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
UNICORN UKCD2044 [61:58]

Blackpool Pleasure Beach Hall of Mirrors provides a good hermeneutic for appreciating and enjoying this remarkable CD.  Assuming that it is still extant, this attraction provides intriguing distortions of physical reality. It made the visitor fatter or skinnier, top heavy, egg timer shape, pulled them this way and that, and squashed, elongated and stretched them. It raised many laughs - and cost only 6d. Maxwell Davies’s Renaissance and Baroque Realisations are a bit like this; virtually every track deploys “modern” instruments used in an idiosyncratic manner. Maxwell Davies used this early music as “a departure point for his own very personal interpretations.” As the liner notes suggest, his realisations provide a “refreshingly different view” of the art of re-presentation of period music, yet never deny his love, admiration and appreciation of it. Each work exhibits humour, parody, wit and irony, yet they are almost all “new creations” which increases the value of the original, rather than diminish it. If you are an early music cognoscente, forget this album. If you worry about “authenticity”, this CD is not for you. Three methods of realisation are used here: first, the “identity of the original” is maintained, despite being reorchestrated. The second procedure takes the historic models, and subjects them to radical change which may or may not completely disguise the source. Finally, there are those pieces where Maxwell Davies cleverly fuses his own musical language with that of the original.

The first three tracks present Purcell in a new light. The Fantasia on a Ground is given a vibrant re-orchestration. The liner notes highlight the piccolo doubling the melody at the 12th, offering a good imitation of a slightly out of tune Baroque organ. The two Pavans are morphed into “foxtrots”. Enthusiasts of PMD’s music will know that he was fascinated by this ubiquitous dance dating from the 1920s. The composer simply stated that “one dead dance form is merely being reinterpreted in terms of another. These slightly wayward (and out of tune) Pavans are a joy to listen to.

Purcell’s Fantasia upon one note is subject to a complete facelift. I guess that the innocent ear may not divine the underlying work or its creator. The music emerges from a “blue haze” and, after some distractions such as Hillbilly and Foxtrot, it returns into the mists.

The realisations of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues are a rare treasure. Most often heard on piano or harpsichord, Maxwell Davies has used an ensemble of flute, clarinet, viola, cello, harpsichord and most innovatively, a marimba. This is magical in effect and these are my favourite pieces on this disc; they should be solidly in the repertoire.

The most challenging work here is Tenebrae super Gesualdo realised in 1972. There is no doubt that Maxwell Davies is exploring the darker side of the Italian composer in these pages. Carlo Gesualdo was also a lutenist, a nobleman and quite possibly a murderer. He lived in the 16th century at a time when intrigue in political, social and artistic circles had developed into an industry.  Maxwell Davies has created an “elegiac meditation” on Gesualdo’s Latin setting of “Attendite et videte si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus'” (Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow). There are four instrumental movements here, separated by three interludes sung by soprano, accompanied by guitar.  This is dark and unsettling music, which matches the concept of Tenebrae, a church service observed during the final part of Holy Week, commemorating the sufferings and death of Christ. Typically, the candles are extinguished one by one after each recitation of a portion of the Psalter. It is slow music, that only occasionally gives a flash of illumination. The entire work is characterised by the sheer colourful effects of Max’s instrumentation.

The realisation of John Dunstable’s Veni Sancte-Veni Creator Spiritus is in two parts. The first is a faithful arrangement of the original. This is followed by a “free fantasia” that provides a commentary in Maxwell Davies’ own style. The liner notes sum up this well: “The discrepancy between the work's size and weight gives the impression that a very large piece is being looked at through the wrong end of a telescope, creating a fascinating perceptual distortion.”

The first of the Three Early Scottish Motets, Si Quis Diligit Me (If anyone loves me) is a setting of a touching piece by the former abbot of St Andrew’s Abbey, David Peebles (c.1510-79). In 1547, a novice at the Abbey, a certain Francy Heagy (fl.1547) added the alto part. Paul Griffith has noted that this is “a straight transcription, albeit a very colourful one.” It is scored for alto flute, clarinet in Bb, celesta, crotales, viola, cello.  The second Motet, Our Father Whiche in Heaven Art was an ancient Psalm tune, written by John Angus (?). The melody is heard in the in the low notes of clarinet and is then subject to some astonishing commentary by Maxwell Davies provided by the flute, celesta and marimba. This is lugubrious music, but also deeply meditative. The final number, All Sons of Adam, is based on an anonymous 16th century motet. Sometimes the exemplar is clearly presented in its new scoring, but often there is an out-of-focus sound, using deconstructed elements from the original. It creates a mysterious mood.

I first heard the music of the 16th century Scottish composer William Kinloch[e] on a notable CD of his keyboard music, performed by John Kitchen. (ASV CD GAU 134, 1993). Included in that recital was the “original” of the present Kinloch his Fantasie.  Maxwell Davies has remained faithful to the melodic and harmonic content of the piece. It is in the instrumentation that he has gone to town. He has arranged it for the typical Pierrot ensemble of flute, clarinet, harpsichord, glockenspiel, violin and cello. Despite this modernisation of the scoring, the sheer joy, fun and exuberance of the prototype has been preserved, if not enhanced. I think the old Scotsman would have delighted in this arrangement of his music.

When I was growing into classical music in the 1970s, The Fires of London were the “go-to” ensemble for modern and avant-garde music. Formed in 1965 as the Pierrot Players, they had an immediate success with Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire then went from strength to strength. Rebranded in 1967, The Fires were instrumental in promoting music-theatre including such masterpieces as Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King and The Martyrdom of Saint Magnus. To be sure, they did specialise in the work of Maxwell Davies, their musical director, but often commissioned new music from aspiring composers. The Fires of London was disbanded in 1987. Over the years the line-up of the Fires changed, however, Stephen Pruslin (keyboards) and the late Mary Thomas (soprano) were with the ensemble for the duration.

The present disc is an exact copy of the 1991 CD reissue of the 1981 LP. That LP did not include the Tenebrae super Gesualdo: the CD does. The excellent liner notes by Stephen Pruslin are original and even Max’s demise has not been noted in the composer’s dates. It is to be hoped that more of the Unicorn back catalogue will soon be available once more. Certainly, there are several other albums of Maxwell Davies’ music on this label that demand to be re-presented to the musical public.

I thoroughly enjoyed this disc. Back in 1981 I invested in a copy of the vinyl album, bought at the once-legendary Bank’s Music Shop in York. My LP disappeared sometime over the past 40 years, so it is good to have this music in my collection once again.

John France

Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Fantasia on a Ground (1968) [5:01]
Pavan in A (1968) [2:12]
Pavan in B Flat (1968) [1:48]
Fantasia upon one note (1973) [3:56]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude & Fugue in C Sharp Minor (1972) [5:15]
Prelude & Fugue in C Sharp Major (1974) [4:12]
Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613) 
Tenebrae super Gesualdo (1972) [15:12]
John DUNSTABLE (c. 1390-1453)
Veni Sancte-Veni Creator Spiritus (1972) [10:11]
Three Early Scottish Motets: Si Quis Diligit Me (1973) [2:35]; Our Father Whiche in Heaven Art (1977) [3:39]; All Sons of Adam (1974) [3:26]
William KINLOCH (fl. c. 1600)
Kinloch[e] his Fantasie (1975) [3:33]

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