PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Trumpet Concerto; Piccolo Concerto; Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights; Five Klee Pictures – Stewart McIlwham, piccolo/ John Wallace, trumpet/ Royal Philharmonic Orch. /Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Philharmonia Orch./ Peter Maxwell Davies – Naxos 8.572363, 68:28, ****:
There are very few composers who have produced a body of work that’s more diverse than Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934). In over six decades he has evolved from enfant terrible (the radical and violent theatrical piece, Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969)), to an honored member of the British musical establishment (appointed as Master of the Queen’s Music in 2004), to a geriatric terrible for his political positions expressed through his statements and music (opposition to the Second Iraq war). Although his music ranges from beautiful tonality to chaotic atonality in virtually every genre of music, there are themes that weave themselves throughout his oeuvre. He uses Christianity as a symbolic “collective unconscious” that underlies human actions; he’s interested in contrasting opposites (e.g. evil vs. good); and he juxtaposes pre-Classical styles with modern, often fusing the old with the new. When he moved to the Orkney Islands of Scotland in 1975, a calmer but somber mood and a new interest in tonality entered his music.
This collection, reissued by Naxos from original recordings made in the 1990s on Collins Classics, is a cross section of some of the styles and periods of his compositional life. The Piccolo Concerto (1996) and the Trumpet Concerto (1988) are part of his cycle of ten Strathclyde Concertos written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra between 1987 and 1996. In the Piccolo Concerto, the composer vacillates between creating instrumental textures that both honor the silvery solo instrument and drown out its unique sound. In between is a beautifully wrought quiet interaction between a bass clarinet and the piccolo, the highlight of this imaginatively orchestrated work.
The Trumpet Concerto’s genesis was from the plainsong Franciscus pauper et humilis –that Maxwell-Davies was going to make into a chamber opera but was never completed. The arc of the thirty minute work begins with a dialogue/struggle between trumpet and orchestra that is serious, dramatic and brilliantly scored. The quiet and eerily beautiful slow movement begins with the trumpet singing plaintively, with a chorus of strings and percussion that climaxes, then transitions to a lively dance, with an apotheosis that gives soloist John Wallace many virtuosic opportunities. What shines in this work is the composer’s inspired and resourceful scoring for an instrument he obviously loves – his first composition was a work for solo trumpet.
Maxwell Davies’ most popular work is An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, and Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights is another tone poem from his experiences of living on the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. It recall’s the composer’s experience of going to a community event at Hoy Hall at night and seeing the Northern lights “pulsing in or out of time” with the dance music being performed. Maxwell’s Reel is taken from volume six of the Scottish Minstrel published in 1824. The music effectively depicts the spirit of that night.
From 1959 to 1962 Peter Maxwell Davies worked as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School and composed many works for children, including Five Klee Pictures.
Inspired by five paintings by Paul Klee, the most memorable is The Twittering Machine, which the composer revised in 1976. It’s an amusing depiction of the quirky painting, with a jazzy rhythmic undertone that makes it seem that the machine comes alive.
This is a good introduction to the sound world of Peter Maxwell Davies, well-performed and recorded.