Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 1; Mavis in Las Vegas
BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
Total Time: 68:03
At first glimpse one might get a bit excited that Sir PeterMaxwell Davies is taking another recorded run through his orchestralmusic. But what appears to have happenedis that Naxis has acquired the catalogue of another minor label allowing olderrecordings to find a new life through their better distribution. The present release consists of recordingsmade for the Collins Classics label from the 1990s complete with thecopyrighted (!) program notes by the composer. The only other recording of the SymphonyNo. 1 was with Simon Rattle back in 1978. Pairing a serious and lighter work together on a single disc may be aninteresting choice and suggests that future releases will continue that patternthus introducing the two sides of this important 20th centuryBritish composer to more listeners.
The gestation of Davies’ first symphony begins in 1973 whenhe received a commission for an orchestral work from the PhilharmoniaOrchestra. In the midst of working out asingle movement piece, Davies began to feel as if more was needed and soon thewhole work began to evolve both forwards and backwards in what would become afour-movement structure. Listeners willlikely feel as if they are in the midst of a something which is post-serial. Harmonic structures in the work provide interestinganchors as the piece proceeds. Oftenthese dissonant constructions give way to almost romantic lines. These lyrical lines tend to appear anddissolve in the texture with rhythmic punctuations in the brass callingattention perhaps as signposts to the progression of thought. One might at first consider this a cerebralwork of which many orchestral works of the 1970s might fit. Davies’ notes certainly suggest that his mindis spanning across centuries for inspiration while recalling musical ideas fromSchumann, to Sibelius, to Boulez. Thatmight help initially, but what listeners will be struck by is the movement intoand out of the more dissonant clusters while intriguing percussion ideascomment as if from the sidelines to the musical argument. All of this for what is a landscape symphonydepicting the composer’s home in the Orkney Valley. And yet the work has this sense of evolutionthat lends the impression that it is coming to life in the present. It is a feeling one gets even into the finalmoments of the piece.
The Symphony No. 1 isin many respects a work of the 1970s that seems to flirt with traditionaltonality. The more atonal thematic ideasare often threaded across a somewhat pointillistic landscape of sound but in away that provides enough glue to maintain interest in the work. The piece shifts fascinatingly betweensections of the orchestra with often intriguing color results. The slower sections of the work are quiteemotionally intense and even more so when Davies moves toward seeming harmonicresolutions or strongly major-sounding material. At nearly 55 minutes though, the work feels abit too long as a whole. The openingpresto and slow third movement are both sufficiently constructed to maintaininterest and the ending of the third movement would be an interestingconclusion. In some respects it feelsalmost as if there are two works vying for attention striving to get out. Yet, one can feel the dilemma of Daviestrying to pull these together into a coherent whole because they do seem tobelong together. One wonders what wouldhave happened had these four movements been thought of as a sort of orchestral “cycle”in two parts. These thoughts are worthstruggling with in this at times profound work.
This reviewer’s first experience of Maxwell Davies’ musicactually came through a Boston Pops recording of his fascinating An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise (1985). He recorded the same piece which was includedon a disc of these lighter pieces along with the then recent Mavis in Las Vegas (1997). The disappointment here is only that we donot get to hear if he has had any difference of tempo or opinion of the workafter some distance from its initial conception. This light-hearted walk through America’s “SinCity” is essentially a theme and variations following “Mavis” down the Strip. The music is a quite different shift from thesymphony filled with jazz and other popular music it is a quite accessible andeven humorous work. It is to date theonly recorded version of the work which certainly deserves a few appearances onpops concerts.
As an introduction to this important British composer, thisfirst disc certainly is an important return to the catalogue. The sound and performances are really stellarand allow for a look into early and late work by Davies all in one place.
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