Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Symphonies from the Seas of Orkney

I wrote a post a while ago about the present popularity of that one-time modernist arch-provocateur Peter (now Sir Peter) Maxwell Davies. I mentioned the popularity of his tuneful orchestral piece (with bagpipes), An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, and the delightful miniature for piano, Farewell to Stromness. I neglected, however, to introduce you to another piece of his which is now widely-loved, a lovely choral miniature called Lullabye for Lucy. Like those other pieces, this is approachable, beautifully-crafted tonal music.

From those pieces, it's a leap towards the Maxwell Davies of the symphonies. I only know the first five, of which the First is a Mahler-length work in four movements, evoking a bleak but magnificent Orkney sea-scape flecked with light (tuned percussion) through goal-directed thematic processes. It's a fine piece, though it's a complex one that needs close attention. The Second and Third Symphonies seem like re-runs of the First and bring diminishing rewards. The Fourth is tougher than any of its predecessors, though again Max seems to be repeating himself in it. So after a fine start, it was downhill all the way...until we reach the Fifth Symphony, which not only restored the quality of the First but exceeded it. He achieved quite a success with it, audiences taking to its quality and its relative approachability.

In the Fifth Symphony, Max abandons Mahlerian length for a single movement piece along the lines of Sibelius's Seventh Symphony. The material is strong and frequently memorable and the use of orchestral colour banishes the greyness of Symphonies 2-4 - without overdoing the mascara! The processes at work are not always obvious, but then why should they be? One way of hearing this work, Max has said, is as an introduction (based on a pair of plainchant-derived themes) followed (Beethoven-like) by 33 variations (or 'moments'). This only partly helps, so better just yield yourself to the symphony's eventful ebb and flow.

That introduction is full of wintry lyricism. It is scored for flutes and clarinet. A thrilling incursion by massed brass brings in a note of Sibelius-like grandeur. Then the strings extend one of the themes beautifully in a memorable melodic phrase, which is accompanied mysteriously by flexitone. This phrase assumes a Scots folk flavouring as the woodwinds followed by the violins extend it (with further Sibelius-like bursts). More elusive passages, akin to those found in the earlier symphonies, also pass by but don't bamboozle this particular listener this time round. Take for example the early passage where cellos tremolo down a third over a timpani pulse against piccolo and crotale counter-figures, launching a short but haunting slow section. Isn't it magical?

Though a shorter work than its predecessors, the symphony has an epic quality to it that can stir the blood as well as passages of pure delight and singing melody. The central climax is bodily exciting and fully symphonic in feel. A colourful, graduated crescendo opens out into a hushed, mysterious Orkney landscape before louring down again dramatically. This process continues through another atmospheric hush and a new crescendo leads to another powerful, sustained climax. A little more colourful thematic play takes us to a final adagio of great beauty, including a single line that passages along the strings from high to low.

One feature found in all the earlier symphonies are bird calls (clearly sea-birds) and they return in the Fifth Symphony, atmospherically sighing on piccolo and flute. That's another thing to listen out for.

Yes, a Max masterpiece.

What of the Sixth Symphony? Well, I'm off to find out for myself now.

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