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CD Review

20th-Century Orchestral Music

Peter Maxwell Davies

  • Symphony #6
  • Time and The Raven
  • An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise *
* George McIlwham, bag-pipes
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies
Naxos 8.572352 76m
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

Mieczysław Weinberg

  • Symphony #19 "Bright May"
  • Symphonic Poem "The Banners of Peace"
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande
Naxos 8.572752 56m
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

Two symphonies by contemporary composers headline both these Naxos discs. I would say the average listener would choose the 1985 Weinberg Nineteenth as the more accessible and perhaps even the better effort. But, especially upon repeated hearings, the more discriminating among them would find Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' 1996 Sixth Symphony the stronger effort by far.

It is an uncompromising work that is mostly tonal but hardly designed to be listener-friendly. It reminds me in many ways of several of the symphonies of Allan Pettersson: Mawell Davies' first movement roils and struggles and in the end comes across as a somber, angry, dark expression that strikes out at frustration or disappointment. That said, it does not imitate Pettersson's style, perhaps only his spirit. The music is pure Maxwell Davies, and opens with a melody taken from his 1995 Time and the Raven, a work also heard on this disc. Maxwell Davies then presents this tune in many different guises throughout this nearly 50-minute three-movement symphony. The finale closes with a restatement of the melody. The main tempo marking in each movement is Adagio, though there is a measure of fast music in each panel. But the overall impression here is that of a mostly slow moving grim piece with many gray clouds in its vast sky.

Originally recorded in 1996, the symphony comes across in fine sound and the performance, led by the composer, is obviously authoritative. Who knows the work better? The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra responds with utter commitment to Maxwell Davies' baton, their playing sounding accurate and beyond any serious criticism.

Time and the Raven (1995) makes a logical filler here. Though it begins in much the same mood that predominates throughout the symphony, it soon brightens and thereafter remains quite a colorful piece. In his interesting notes on the work David Nice draws a parallel between this composition and Prokofiev's Russian Overture, a work featuring folk tunes in imaginative and quite virtuosic orchestration. While such a comparison can be made, Maxwell Davies' music sounds rather modern here and features mostly original thematic material in a less easily grasped structure. That said, it is light and colorfully orchestrated and quite optimistic.

An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise (1984) is one of the composer's more popular works, and is also optimistic – or, rather, uproarious. The music depicts a wedding celebration which the composer attended on Orkney Island where he's lived since 1971. Here Maxwell Davies offers many attractive tunes, with the character of his music turning drunken and almost riotous as things proceed. The work closes with a celebratory bagpipe solo of utterly memorable character. As suggested above, the sound is vivid and the performances of both fillers are splendid. This is a highly rewarding disc.

The Weinberg Nineteenth Symphony ("Bright May") begins in a dignified manner, the strings dominating the scoring, with Soviet politics hovering above the proceedings. Indeed, the subtitle "Bright May", refers to the month in which World War II ended for the Soviets. Okay, we can all still drink champagne to the end of the war in Europe, but one becomes a little suspicious of a work dedicated to this happening that was written in 1985. Yes, 1985, and despite the fact that many works had already been written to mark that event in the Soviet Union. Really, one might view this piece as an excuse to celebrate Soviet triumph and greatness at a time when Soviet life was in broad decline under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Not surprisingly, Weinberg did write a small number of other compositions that reflected, or even heroically depicted, political events and ideas associated with Soviet history and politics.

As I asserted in my review of his Sixth Symphony (Naxos 8.572779), Weinberg was under the spell Shostakovich, and here the connection to his older colleague's music is clearly evident again. In fact, the work begins in a mood and style that call to mind portions of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony and even the Twelfth. Those two works are hardly good models to follow as they are among Shostakovich's least effective symphonies, but one must concede that in this work Weinberg manages to avoid bombast and crass political ties. However, Gorbachev was allowing much more freedom in the arts at the time Weinberg wrote this symphony; yet from its conservative expressive language, you'd think we're back in the 1960s, or in the Stalin era even.

All that said, the music is fairly attractive and expertly crafted nonetheless. Cast in three more or less continuous movements, the music is rather somber and often intense in the first two movements, but the mood turns triumphant in the finale. Yet even here there is a measure of angst, as if in the midst of triumph the composer is warning that we must not forget our past woes.

Those "crass political ties" do emerge in The Banners of Peace, also from 1985. The work is dedicated to the 27th Congress of the Soviet Union's Communist Party. It is a colorful piece which, after a somewhat sober opening scored largely for strings, becomes a mostly light-hearted work featuring some of the very same "Revolutionary" and traditional themes used by Shostakovich in his Eleventh Symphony. While Banners is not a masterpiece, it makes for quite an attractive filler for the symphony.

Vladimir Lande draws excellent performances from the orchestra in both works, leaving you with the impression that it would be difficult to fashion more compelling interpretations of these two rarely encountered compositions. If you're one of a growing number of people with an interest in the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, you'll want to snatch up this CD, because as far as I can determine you won't find any current competition in the catalog. Naxos offers excellent sound reproduction and informative notes by Richard Whitehouse.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings