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Maxwell Davies: Psappha, Kelvin Thomas (baritone). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 23.1.2010 (MB)

Davies – Image, Reflection, Shadow (1982)
Purcell-Davies – Fantasia and Two Pavans (1968)

Davies – Hymnos, for clarinet and piano (1967)
Davies – Piano Sonata (1981)
Davies – Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) (concert performance)


Conrad Marshall (flute/piccolo)

Dov Goldberg (clarinets)

Richard Casey (piano/harpsichord)

Tim Williams (cimbalom/percussion)

David Routledge (violin)

Jennifer Langridge (violoncello)

Kelvin Thomas (baritone)


Here were two more concerts from the ever-enterprising Psappha, part of the Kings Place series celebrating Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: ‘Circus Maximus’. The first presented Image, Reflection, Shadow, an 1982 chamber piece for the Fires of London; the second, in two halves, brought us the riotous Purcell arrangement, Fantasia and Two Pavans, Hymnos for clarinet and piano, the piano sonata, and finally, one of Max’s most celebrated (notorious?) music-theatre works, Eight Songs for a Mad King. Even those works for smaller forces can be performed by members of the basic Fires of London line-up, that is Pierrot-quintet plus percussion, so the concerts turned out to be a tribute not only to the composer, but also to the ensemble he co-founded with Harrison Birtwistle, initially as the Pierrot Players.

Image, Reflection, and Shadow
, for Pierrot-quintet and cimbalom, came as quite a revelation to me. Though a later work than those that have previously tended to spark my interest, and lacking the outrage factor of many of the composer’s earlier work, this held plenty of interest over its roughly forty-minute span, much more a companion piece to the classic Ave maris stella than a precursor to the myriad symphonies and quartets that have so preoccupied Davies in his Orcadian years. Though written in three movements, these do not correspond to the three words of the title but to the ‘play throughout of mirror and copy’ (Paul Griffiths), much of it based upon writing for three duos of strings, woodwinds, and piano/cimbalom. The build-up of intensity in the opening Adagio struck me as near-Bartókian in its quality, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta a distant relative, though there was more than a little of Schoenberg’s shadow too. Though the colour of the cimbalom, here superbly performed by Tim Williams, necessarily has its own resonances, there was no doubt that they were being put by the composer to his own ends. Violence and repose could coexist and conflict, as at the end of the first movement. I liked the infectious, catchy quality to the scherzo-like second movement, its textures varied, at times creating a great mass of sound belying the relatively modest forces, at others boiled down to a virtuoso dialogue between cimbalom and piano – and even a cimbalom cadenza, as also in the finale, whose writing could at times itself recall Pierrot Lunaire. Psappha’s performances were committed and apparently expert: an accomplished tribute to composer and work.

I greatly enjoyed the Purcell-Davies Fantasia and Two Pavans, as resounding a riposte to ‘authenticity’ as one could imagine. In that respect, I can do no better than quote Davies:

I have long been fascinated by Purcell’s music, but utterly bored by well-meaning ‘authentic’ performances, which possibly get every double-dotted rhythm right but convey not sense of Purcell’s intensity of feeling, sense of fun and sheer outrageousness. I feel the profoundest respect for the ‘great’ composers of the past, but have no feeling of slavish reverence towards them whatever – after all, they were living, real people, not priests …. Musical purity in these matters is about as interesting as moral purity. I am sure that many people will consider my Purcell realisations wholly immoral.

The brightness of the F major Fantasia truly registered in Davies’s screeching non-authenticity – itself, ironically, imparting a parodic edge on the border of ‘authenticity’ to impressions of the twelfth stop of an old chamber organ. Marimba is a welcome visitor to the consort. But it is in the two pavans, louchely reinterpreted as foxtrots, that the composer most provokes and, more importantly, most amuses. Every note of Purcell is there, but as you have never heard it before. A wonderful touch is the speeding up and slowing down to evoke an old 78 rpm recording. Although a vocalist was not employed on this occasion for the second pavan, there was still a great deal to savour in what again proved authoritative and enjoyable performances.

for clarinet and piano was likewise splendidly presented, by Dov Goldberg and Richard Casey. The work holds nothing back; much of it indeed is very loud, though it has its lyrical moments too. Metrical complexity, born of or at least related to, Indian music registers both intellectual and emotionally. Balances shift, sometimes to the ‘advantage’ of one of the soloists, but it is the developmental impulse that resists and its strengthened, here very much in performance as well as work.

The piano sonata must certainly be at least as great a technical and intellectual challenge for the soloist; it was perhaps a little cruel to have Casey more or less immediately embark upon that, following Hymnos. Though there were odd occasions when he appeared to slip, the vision as a whole throughout Davies’s seven-movement, quasi-symmetrical structure was tightly focused. It was revealing to note, both audibly and visually, just how much of the burden the left hand bears, whilst ghosts of piano past, for instance the Schoenberg of the Op.11 Pieces and Debussy, made their presence felt. This is certainly a work written for its instrument.

Though marked as a ‘concert performance’, this is a matter of degree when it comes to Eight Songs for a Mad King. The king was in costume, the players wore bird masks, and we did not have to go without the breaking of the violin in no.7, Country Dance. As the composer has written, ‘Until quite recently, “madness” was regarded as something at which to laugh and jeer. The King’s historically authentic quotations from The Messiah in the work evoke this sort of mocking response in the instrumental parts – the stylistic switch is unprepared, and arouses an aggressive reaction.’ Aggression certainly, and unease, perhaps inevitably, but also a kind of neo-eighteenth-century wonder at what transpires. This is theatre – and theatre with a vengeance. Even the turns from harpsichord to piano elicit their own savage irony. The breaking of the violin comes as dramatic release, permitting the possibility, drum thwacks notwithstanding, that our hero might finally gain some peace. Having broken the cage, might the keeper be defeated? I can pay no greater compliment than to say that, following this performance, Kelvin Thomas valiantly evoking the celebrated extended range of Roy Hart, I immediately wanted to hear the work again.

Mark Berry


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