Subject: I have found a CD that I think you would enjoy
|Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Scottish Chamber Orchestra|
Maxwell Davies: Sinfonia Concertante (1982) / Sinfonia (1962)
Second (and more positive) thoughts
Discophage | France | 04/09/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I've recently bought a score of study scores of compositions of Peter Maxwell Davies (I don't know why, but many second-hand ones came up recently at affordable prices with various internet sellers); especially with contemporary music, following with score can dramatically improve one's perception by helping see, thus hear a myriad details that otherwise would be blurred in the overall sonic picture; but here, re-hearing with scores works that I had listened to without and reviewed as such, hasn't radically changed my views; if anything, in some of them, the sheer effort of following MD's constant changes of time-signature and intricacy of instrumental writing, while helping concentrate my attention on some felicitous instrumental details I might not have noticed earlier, rather drew my mind away from the larger sonic picture.
Sinfonia Concertante is the one exception, though, leading me to completely overhaul my original review of this piece. My initial reaction was lukewarm and my original review, unenthusiastic. While recognizing the "poetic and atmospheric" aspects of the composition and the interest of the voluble interlacing of the solo instruments, I found the melodies stern and unremarkable, and I was also bothered by what I felt was an excessive reliance on "the same, hack orchestral gestures which I have already heard in his other works: such as the hushed, mysterious violin tremolo indicating a state of expectation, before an eruption that in fact never really happens".
Maybe my score-less listening was influenced too much by the liner notes and their contention that MD's Sinfonia Concertante is rooted in Mozart's similar work (adding flute and timpani to Mozart's four winds), and its architecture inspired by the classical model. It may be true with the architecture, but now I realize that it is absolutely not the case with the composition's mood. In fact, I am now struck by its kinship with MD's magnificent Symphonies # 2 & 3 - and no wonder: these were composed around the same time, between 1980 and 1984 (see my reviews of Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 2 and Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 3). All three works are tempestuous, marked, in MD's own words (describing here the 3rd Symphony, but it applies to the two other works as well), by "the presence, through the whole work, of the sea - reflecting the circumstances of its composition, at home in a tiny isolated cottage on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland, on a clifftop overlooking the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Here the sound, sight, and mood of the sea influences your whole existence, all your perceptions, and - particularly in winter - shudders right through the stones of the house, and indeed through your very bones".
So I now realize that the work is not really about "melodies" - however stern and unseductive (and there are some of those, too). The wind "sings", in its own way, but in not melody that one can whistle in imitation. The one aspect of Sinfonia Concertante which may have shaped my initial appreciation is its almost constant subdued nature: it is winds gusting forth but never really erupting into thunder (a feature also encountered in the two symphonies). I first received that as a certain shortcoming of dramatic architecture (what happened to the outburst?). If I may quote my initial review "I have doubts about MD's sense of drama, his ability (or willingness, perhaps) to build up a trajectory leading to a climax in which all the accumulated tensions will be released, and back (although that is not as necessary dramatically) to a state of repose. With MD, I often have the impression that those tensions start accumulating but rapidly taper off way before they've had a chance to come to a head"
I don't feel this anymore as a deficiency, but rather as a very poetic trait: yes, the turbulent weather, the gusting winds, the lashing rain last all night without necessarily erupting into a violent thunderstorm, and then comes the morning, or sleep. And the "carpet" of hushed string sounds, the accented tremolos, which I called "hack", are part of that atmosphere. Likewise with the recording, which doesn't put the six soloists (except maybe timpani and horn) at the fore, but rather embeds them in the orchestral (e.g. strings) texture. What it taketh away in terms of instrumental presence and feeling of a concerto, it giveth in atmosphere and sonic poetry: the piece becomes a tone poem rather than a vehicle for virtuosic display.
Sinfonia for chamber orchestra is an earlier work, from 1962 (the composer's first major professional orchestral commission, in fact, written for the English Chamber Orchestra). It is one in three early works in which MD derived his inspiration from Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, of which he staged a performance at the Cirencester Grammar School (the British equivalent of high school I think) where he taught music from 1959 to 1962 (the other two being the First String Quartet and the Leopardi Fragments). Listening here without score, MD seems much closer to the traditional models of music architecture in his building and releasing of tension, especially in the first movement. There, in some passages, you could easily think, on a blind test, that you were in a Lutoslawski work. Sinfonia displays the same kind of virtuosic and voluble interlacing of solo woodwinds as in the later Sinfonia Concertante, and in the third movement especially I find it as stern and un-seductive as I first did in the later work - so maybe with a score that would change as well. But the finale is a slow, brooding and intense meditation featuring mainly strings alone (with a few whiffs of woodwinds in the middle), and it is quite taking in its own, stern and uncompromising way.
TT 59:30, excellent liner notes, although I now question some of their analyses of Sinfonia Concertante.