Naxos is re-issuing all of British composer, Peter Maxwell Davies', distinctive and impactful symphonies. Earlier releases (Naxos 8.572348, 8.572349 and 8.572350, for instance) were of performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. "Max" (as he is best known; and best known mainly to European audiences only, regrettably) conducts here too. But this CD features the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In the Sixth Symphony the composer wished to acknowledge that orchestra's "very special musical virtuosity". The release also contains two shorter pieces at under a quarter of an hour each… Time and the Raven, draws on multiple sources and was written in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations; while An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise has become something of a "signature" piece for Maxwell Davies alongside the much shorter Farewell to Stromness (not on this CD).
If any work can elevate Maxwell Davies' star, it's his Sixth Symphony. Written at around the same time as Time and the Raven, it actually uses material from the latter. Though it is in no way derivative. It's a mellifluous – at times serene; always thoughtful – work that begins slowly and visits a number of worlds and atmospheres in its three contrasting movements. The outer two are each twice the length of the inner movement and move from slow to fast in each case; the second movement is marked adagio ma non troppo. The Sixth Symphony is full of emotion, controlled yet unmistakable. Its varied timbres and textures provide no shocks, nor any real surprises. But it's always winding, unwinding and leading the ear in interesting directions. Typical Max symphonic writing.
Maxwell Davies' music can be quite angular and "craggy" at times. In this set of three pieces, the most "pointed" piece is Time and the Raven. In fact it's a collage of material from what sound as though they're real National Anthems in keeping with the work's origins, purpose and commission. In fact only the main theme, first heard on alto flute and violins, is not by Max himself; it's a "treated" Aboriginal melody. Bursts of what could easily be nationalistic music occur throughout the work's 13½ minutes. The momentum of the music suggests that players should enter into what the composer believes is a dangerous glorification of nationalistic fervor. Yet the music never leads them there and – without either satirizing or criticizing the idea – undue such sentiment is deflated by a mellower turn of musical events.
The An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise is both more overtly local, recalling the lilt of Scottish folk music; and much more "pictorial" in that it suggests the jollity and rejoicing of an actual wedding (Maxwell Davies lives on Orkney, of course, and is familiar with such traditions). It is ostensibly one of the composer's many "lighter" pieces written throughout his career. Yet in fact it is no slight piece. A lot is packed into its short (also just over 13 minutes) duration. It has an immense variety in common with both the Sixth Symphony and Time and the Raven. At the same time, being written only ten years earlier, it has a little less of the pessimism that seems to have advanced in Max's music as his outlook on the world has matured.
The playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is superb throughout. They grasp the many nuances of Maxwell Davies' writing as firmly as they convey convincingly its melodic and rhythmic thrusts. It would be tempting to be carried away with the music's painting, its acknowledgement of the worlds which it reflects. To read in, say, landscape and a sense of place and moment at the expense of the abstractions with which the composer is obviously more concerned. The RPO avoids that entirely. Each section has its own logic; each grouping of phrases and ideas needs to be set in the context of the mirroring of tempi, say. These make the Sixth such a strong piece. This understanding the orchestra builds on expertly and without self-consciousness or self regard. Both in the various instrumental sections of the large and sonorous orchestra, and the many expressive tutti.
Clearly the fact that the composer is conducting is crucial. But the sound, the very depth of color brought to the score, by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are what count. And Maxwell Davies is pushing against an open door. Solo highlights always fit easily and seamlessly into the whole. The result is that the music's architecture is clear; the direction of the many developments brought to it by Maxwell Davies' vibrant imagination draws us in nicely.
This is important, approachable and original music played with attack and sensitivity under the direction of a composer whose work deserves to be better known outside the UK. The bargain price of the CD would make it recommend itself even if the music were not so enjoyable and engaging. It is. The place of the Sixth in the Maxwell Davies symphony cycle adds to the appeal. It's appropriate to have a top notch performance of the overture-like piece on which it draws. This is a CD about which lovers of contemporary music need feel no ambivalence.
The acoustic is close and conducive to an appreciation of Maxwell Davies' orchestral color and energy. The short folded two pages of the accompanying booklet with background are informative, if brief. And well up to Naxos' standard. If you're collecting the cycle of symphonies, you won't want to omit this release: the symphony is otherwise unavailable on CD. If you're new to Maxwell Davies' work, this makes a good place to start.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey