Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 5; An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, MacMillan: Brittania, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Paul Daniel

Usher Hall, 18 August 2009 5 stars

Maxwell davies by Graham TurnerIt was a real pleasure to find the RSNO in sparkling form under the baton of Paul Daniel last night. Performing some deeply challenging repertoire, they and he brought the evening off with elan—by turns witty, schmaltzy, passionate and fierce as the scores made their several demands.

It was a well-made show, too, in the unusual shape of the programming: starting with a symphony, finishing symmetrically with a work whose scale and rhetorical drive is symphonic in all but name; the weight being balanced by two shorter occasional pieces either side of the interval which gave both composers and orchestra a chance to show off their lighter side.

In truth, it's nice to see the Edinburgh Festival pay its respects to Peter Maxwell Davies as his 75th birthday approaches. It makes for an odd geometry with the homecoming theme—a broad theme in Scottish culture this year, linked to the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth—Davies being a long-term resident who nevertheless retains his northern English and European roots. The chemistry is difficult to explain. Usually I refer people to Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman, and the exchange of molecules between policeman and bicycle, to give a flavour of the acculturation process. An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise works in similar territory. Bizarre and delightful by turns, always under virtuoso control, the material plays affectionate games, teasing listeners of both liberal and conservative persuasions, accomplishing the by-no-means-easy feat of stitching mordant humour into a rational musical argument without crossing the boundary of poor taste. While the breakdown of metre and pitch, midway through, amusingly parodies the excesses of alcohol, I found the passages of accompanied melody (that notorious abuse, as Boulez might say) equally mischievous. And then there is the innocent delight to be had, watching startled heads turn as the bagpipes finally enter, to warm acclaim.

Britannia, similarly, is a virtuoso showcase, written to a commission that draws an interesting homecoming contrast. The Association of British Orchestras, with British Telecom, commissioned MacMillan for a concert overture to be performed by each of the association members in the 1994-5 season. The strange thing is how curiously old-fashioned the term 'British' is coming to seem (round here anyway), something that MacMillan's score echoes — I suspect — unconsciously, with its duck calls and 1920s-style car horns. Somehow the kaleidoscope of musical material reminds one of tuning a medium-wave radio, again a recollection of Constant Lambert's remarks about hearing

snatches of radio broadcasts while walking along 1930s London streets, in Music Ho! And yet the compositional technique, the orchestral ensemble, is entirely and superbly of its time.

Only more so, the same technical excellence is palpable in MacMillan's early signature work, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. What an impressive statement it was, and remains—an engrossing work of a sustained, passionate intensity that I doubt any recording could ever do justice to. There are grounds for reservations about the programmatic aspect of the work. I think there is a conversation to be had, concerning the relationship between the spate of witch trials MacMillan references and the emergence of Protestantism, some sense of a rationalism discovered through an extreme irrationalism. Music has powers of expatiation, though not of absolution, but if the audience departs deep in thought then the composer has at least initiated dialogue.

DiasporaFor me, though, the most intriguing musical dialogue was taking place in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' fifth symphony, the work that opened the concert. Perhaps with Michael Frayn's play in mind, it is the idea of Sibelius and Mahler reprising their 1907 conversation regarding the nature of the symphony. Sibelius' 7th symphony is explicitly referenced by Davies in his remarks about the genesis of this particular work, while his analysis of the turbulent processes of deconstruction and reassembly taking place through Mahler's 5th abides in the background. Common to both, and to the Davies, is a sense of unity in diversity, which in the present work includes a situated sense of place, of Orcadian peace centring the dialogue instead of Mahler's eternal trauma or Sibelius's ultimate retreat.

But there is dialogue, too, with Davies' own oeuvre. Coincidentally, a spate of Birtwistle at the Proms reminds me of the premieres of Davies' first symphony, and the original staging of Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus in the late 70s and early 80s. Clangourous, scrappy (in the belligerent sense) and perturbed, massively ambitious as the first symphony was, the parallel with the bleeding chunk of Birtwistle at Friday's Prom was striking. It came as a bit of a surprise, then, finding the 5th to be full of sweet, glistening textures, exuding pleasantness. For all the talk of Sibelius and Mahler, this is distinctively Maxwell Davies, with memorable thumbprint touches like the refrain and chorus initiated early on by the trumpet finding a shimmering response like a pebble dropped in water. Typically, this is not a fleeting gesture but a shape that recurs in transformation throughout the course of the work.

The continuity from the 1st is most marked in the weight of content contributed by the percussion section (again a characteristic shared with Birtwistle), so I close with one small word of reproach to Mr Daniel: during the generous applause afterwards, the percussionists deserved a moment of solo acclaim along with the other distinctive contributors!

By Peter Cudmore

Photos: Peter Maxwell Davies by Graham Turner, and James MacMillan


GreenwoodRelated articles:

Concert Review: Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus at the Proms
CD review: The LSO under Colin Davis play MacMillan's Isobel Gowdie (LSO 0124)
Concert Review: Maxwell Davies works at this year's Proms

Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum