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SACD Review

London Symphony Orchestra Live

  • Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony #10 "Alla ricerca di Borromini" 1,2
  • Andrzej Panufnik: Symphony #10
1 Markus Butter, baritone
2 London Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
LSO Live SACD LSO0767 Hybrid Multichannel
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Here is a welcome pairing of two tenth symphonies by experts in the symphonic genre – each inspired by disciplines other than music: geometry and arithmetic. Peter Maxwell Davies' Tenth by the architect, Francesco Borromini; Panufnik's by the Fibonacci series. Maxwell Davies' work is almost three times the length of Panufnik's and includes choral settings – an anonymous Seventeenth Century sonnet, text by Francesco Borromini written hours after an attempted suicide; and the sonnet "A se stesso" by Leopardi. Both works are ably conducted by Antonio Pappano on the label of the orchestra in question, LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) Live.

Although not for reasons of superstition, Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934) did say over ten years ago that his Eighth Symphony ("Antarctic Symphony", from 2001) would be his last. Yet he has written two more, the Ninth in 2012; and now his Tenth, "Alla ricerca di Borromini", which received its world première at the Barbican Hall, London, on 2 February 2014; this is a recording of that event.

Maxwell Davies was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and given only weeks to live. He announced as recently as last month (October 2015) that the particularly aggressive form of leukemia which he thought he had beaten has now returned; and said once more that he is determined to compose as much and as quickly as he can. Listening to this work with that in mind illuminates (and in the hands of Pappano and the LSO massively expands) the music's focus given what we know about Max's positive attitude to life, the life force which has has long championed in his support of environmental integrity and social justice. This performance does convey some of the "hurry" which the composer felt then, and must feel all the more now. The music is not played in a rushed, not even an "urgent", manner. But the senses of purpose and motivation, forward-looking and perhaps even impatience (listen to the unwavering decisiveness of the Symphony's finale [tr.4], for instance), are palpable and to the credit of those involved: a splendid insight.

The Tenth everywhere reflects this determination and awareness of that strange relationship between creativity and mortality; and examines the paradox that creative artists spend lifetimes building. Yet then leave their constructions behind on death. Its subtitle – "In search of Borromini" – is significant and goes beyond the time Maxwell Davies spent in Rome in the late 1950s. Borromini is the byname of Francesco Castelli (1599-1667), one of the leading Italian Renaissance architects and one who stood out for being self-taught, for a difficult relationship with patrons, and for his eventually successful suicide.

Despite all of this (or perhaps because of it), Maxwell Davies is obviously fascinated by Borromini's inventiveness. By emphasizing the "search", he is surely suggesting a more intimate and interactive relationship between maker and listener/viewer/reader – sonething which it's appropriate to do when re-assessing one's life as creator and receiver. Again, Pappano, LSO and soloists are alive to these implications, their subtleties and the aspects of them which are ineffable.

Those familiar with Max's work will recognize the freer, almost playful, characteristics in his smaller-scale orchestra writing. This is an otherwise serious, assertive and almost self-consciously weighty, though not at all extrovert, work. Listen to the section towards the middle of the third, presto movement [tr.3], for instance. The rest seems equally deliberately out to break with previous structural and textural styles which the composer has developed. Vocal material is included, and there are extreme contrasts in dynamic, almost operatic concerns with progression of the music over time as opposed to exploration of sound, color, theme.

What is classic Max is the way in which this Tenth ruminates, meditates – though without pause, almost breathlessly – on the wider subject which he has chosen: the nature of creation, of how a determined and dedicated artist must achieve a goal, as Borromini did; and here as Maxwell Davies does. This needs soloists, chorus, orchestra and conductor fully in sympathy with the external factors driving music.

By and large these forces are so sympathetic; though one wonders briefly at times whether Pappano doesn't instinctively fall back on dramaturgical conventions to achieve a more purely orchestral impact&helli; surprise, the relationship between contrast and continuity in fostering true musical development, conveying integrity purely in terms of sound, which does not need the novel. These are all here in Maxwell Davies' score and audible in the performances. But greater familiarity with the music might have conferred upon a subsequent performance a more successfully holistic feeling – though it's never in need of polish, attack or sensitivity. One might wish, too, for a more sensitive Italian pronunciation by baritone Markus Butter.

Max has always been a thoughtful composer, fully aware of the wider world and its inevitable, welcome influences on music. Yet there are aspects of this Tenth that break new ground (the intensely personal, the aversion to obfuscation, the clarity of ideas which receive much attention yet are really very simple). One might welcome a second interpretation of this Symphony, although commissioned in part by the LSO; for it's a complex work which doesn't yield all its secrets at once. This is the case because – for all Max's lifetime concern to see (musical) entities in the round, all sides of a composition's possible aspects – in this symphony his approach to "What comes next?" is more urgent, more insistent.

Panufnik's Tenth compresses much into its barely 15 minute length. It too is aware of structure, development and how external systems (here the arithmetical magic of the Fibonacci series, 1-2-3-5-8-13-21 etc, each number being the sum of the previous two) can positively inform composition. The work is subdivided into four sections each with their own logic, and each with analogous insistences on (various) three-note motifs.

There is contrast, excellently brought out by the LSO without undue emphasis on change, or any hint that this is a concerto for orchestra; it's not. The performers also manage to suggest and execute Panufnik's grounding in arithmetic as the foundation for a geometry of curves (musical orbits around the Symphony) and a resolution which straightens the thematic trajectory out. Nor are the sets of textures lacking in beauty or punch. An interesting work superbly played because it's all accepted on its own terms by Pappano and the LSO. The beautifully-crafted slow, quiet ending of Panufnik's Tenth is a superb summit which seems aptly to encompass the purpose and tone of the whole CD.

The acoustic is recognizably that of the Barbican, somewhat lacking in resonance yet as spacious as necessary so as not to lose the expansiveness of the symphonies. The booklet contains background to this phase of both composers' work and a wider appreciation thereof, as well as portraits of the performers and texts of Maxwell Davies' work. The Panufnik does have one other recording – from 2011, on CPO (777683-2) by the Berlin Concert House Orchestra under Lukasz Borowicz. Both works are significant, representative of their composers' preoccupations at the times in which they were composed, and performed excellently. The CD can be recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey