Sunday, 1 April 2012

Max-imum exposure

It still makes me grin when I remember a Classic FM countdown of its listeners' 200 favourite pieces that featured two pieces in the top 50 by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (now Master of the Queen's Music, despite once being a vocal republican). Max - as he is commonly known - used to be a bogeyman for those who loathe modernist music and was quite the modernist himself. Something of that memory must have been in the presenter's mind when she expressed what sounded like a mixture of shock and horror that this composer had not one but two pieces that her station's listeners loved so deeply. I remembered that she had previously been a prominent BBC presenter who had expressed reservations on air about the hardline wing of the post-war avant garde during the Beeb's Sounding the Century series and must have classed Max as being one of the guilty men. 

The two pieces that struck such a chord with the listeners of Classic FM - and have always struck a chord with me - are the lovely miniature Farewell to Stromness and the delightful orchestral lollipop An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. Both are full of Scottish folk flavours, are openly tuneful and are either modal or tonal. If you don't know them already I suspect you will find them an absolute joy to meet.

I like Max. I like hearing him interviewed even when I disagree with what he's saying, and I like hearing his music, even if it sometimes leaves me colder that a winter's day on Hoy. He's that sort of composer, fitfully inspired but when on form a compelling listen - whether in a populist vein, in a provocatively modernist vein or in a seriously classical vein. I must admit to loathing one of his best known modernist pieces, the Eight Songs for Nigel Hawthorne..sorry for a Mad King, but they are unquestionably the work of a fascinating composer trying out something very, very different. 

His music, over fifty or more years, has changed so much. To be crude, he has passed from orthodox (but in the Britain of the time highly radical) serialism (such as his 1961 String Quartet) to the cock-snooking expressionist pastiches of the 1960s through the sea-evoking part-Sibelius-part-Mahler-inspired early symphonies of the '70s and early '80s to the mingling of populist works and mildly expressionist throwbacks of the last two or so decades. 

Can we expect an Eight Songs for a Much-Loved Queen in June? That would be a turn up for the books!

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