Knussen: Music for a Puppet Court; Mahler: Rückert Lieder; Maxwell Davies: Symphony no. 4

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Raisker/Knussen

Queen's Hall, 10 November 2009 4.5 stars

Maxwell DaviesIn an attractive and intelligently assembled programme, the SCO paid tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on the occasion (approximately) of his 75th birthday. In the late 1980s and early 90s he and they enjoyed a stimulating and productive relationship that yielded ten concertos and the fourth symphony. This evening's concert was a welcome opportunity to reappraise and recontextualize while of course enjoying a characteristically adroit performance.

The most salient thing about Oliver Knussen's Music for a Puppet Court, he remarked prior to the performance, is a debt to Davies' Seven In Nomine, a fusion of realization and response that indeed inspired several young composers to analyze medieval and renaissance models before reinterpreting them in their own voice. 'Inspired' is not exactly the right word; the relationship was more a matter of intensive coaching as part of a sustained commitment to raising the standard of professional composition in the UK and beyond.

Knussen's work must undoubtedly be among the most successful of these essays. It is scored for two chamber orchestras arranged antiphonally. Two short realizations frame two recompositions, the realizations beautifully and tastefully voiced; the recompositions ebullient and imaginatively colourful.

As such, the influence of Mahler on Knussen's orchestral style was as palpable as that of Davies, and the scheduling of the Rückert Lieder is no accident. A concerto wouldn't have suited the dynamic of the evening so well, but, in welcoming the choice, a word is due about the compromises made in order to get Mahler's score to fit the chamber resources. For the most part these were unobtrusive, but the piano in Um Mitternacht stuck out grotesquely. Surely there's a better way to fill in for the missing heavy brass? That apart, Knussen drew a warm and lyrical, but intense, reading from the orchestra, richly supporting Helena Raisker's creamy assurance in the solo part.

A nice moment preceded the second half. After the audience had retaken their seats, with the orchestra ready to begin, the composer entered the hall and accepted an unscheduled round of applause as he took his seat, beaming.

So to the symphony, the reappraisal, and a puzzle. Does the notion of a 'symphony' sit any more easily with the notion of 'avant garde' with the passage of years? The answer is not exactly yes, and not exactly no; it is a difficult question. What prompted it initially was a sense that Davies' fourth symphony seemed more like the fifth than I had expected. My recollection of the fourth, from performances at the time of its debut, was of a more sparse and austere work, but in intensity, density, and rhetorical shape the resemblance between the two is striking, despite the fourth being cast in four movements and the fifth in a single one.

Pondering this prompted two thoughts. One concerns Alfred Brendel's writing about the 'character' of Beethoven sonatas, the other concerns Bergson's line about evolutionary success representing the sum of obstacles avoided. The high modern avant garde aesthetic with which Davies is aligned eschews the embodied listening cues that furnish the simple tools at Beethoven's disposal. It deconstructs metre (an effect comparable to Pogorelich's pianism, but theorized apriori), and it deconstructs functional harmony. There is no fast or slow, no happy or sad; instead there is a cerebral flux in which material stands or fails by its capacity to assert logical connectivity. A notion of evidence-based transmission supervenes on the ordinary oral protocols of communication.

Consequently the aesthetic deprecates biography, in an updating of the ideology of absolute music—the quotidian content of Shostakovich's symphonies, for instance, being a focus of critique from this perspective. Yet it is hard to believe that the Orcadian peace Davies enjoys when focused on his work does not have an impact deeper than mere associative geography. Compared, say, to Messiaen, whose compositional practice had to fit in with a punishing teaching schedule, the time and space Davies had earned by the time he began his symphonic project affords an intensity of focus that inverts the normal interpretation of Mahler's insistence that the symphony 'must be like the world. It must embrace everything.'

Another parameter is the implicit threat of kitsch from adopting the name 'symphony', a particularly acute concern since Davies has few peers when it comes to the varieties of comedy that music can express, whether it be irony or slapstick. That he does not introduce such a dimension to these works of high seriousness speaks of an enduring tension that preserves a sense of edge that entitles them to be regarded as leaning more towards the avant garde than the classical.

Ironically, it was a mildly comic observation that unlocked the performance for me. Someone in front of me, obviously well acquainted with the score, was discreetly putting her fingers in her ears in advance of a distinctive, recurring trumpet figuration, a virtuosic duet that reappeared and reconfigured, though with increasingly recognizable contours, as the score developed. This reached its apotheosis in a stunning passage of sustained intensity as the adagio coalesced into a plainsong-paced coherence. Like a renaissance tenor, above and below this coherence swirled polyphonic threads, and Knussen marshalled it all with characteristic skill and sensitivity, drawing a confident, committed, bravura performance from the orchestra. It was an extra treat to witness this fine musician in action, in an all-too-rare visit to these parts as a fitting and affectionate tribute to one of the great composers of our time.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Peter Maxwell Davies


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