Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The two sides of Maxwell Davies' piano music

Like Alberto Ginastera, the late Peter Maxwell Davies wrote uncompromisingly complex densely avant-garde music as well as much more accessible, simple folkloric music, and like Ginastera, these disparate styles come from different periods in his life. The works written after 1980 make use of the folk-songs of the Orkney Islands, where he lived from 1971 until his death earlier this year. And like many a folkloric composer - Villa-Lobos, Bartok, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak among them - Maxwell Davies wrote his own original music in such a way that it is often mistaken as a quotation of a folk tune. This English composer (he was born in Salford, Lancashire) made such a deep connection to the land and people of the northern islands, and you can hear it in this simple, often childlike music.

The avant garde music Maxwell Davies wrote between the mid-1950s and 1981, on the other hand, reminds one of Schoenberg, Ligeti or Xenakis. This is music in an international style, but there is a core in even the most formalist works that remains intensely personal. His recomposition of Dunstable's Sub tuum protectionem shows both his cleverness and his sense of humour. The Piano Sonata of 1981 is the pinnacle of the composer's avant garde style, and one of the great Sonatas of the century. This work certainly makes an impact, condensing a huge amount of material into seven relatively short movements. With a sound world completely typical of the late 20th century, I was nevertheless reminded more than anyone of late Beethoven, in its serious search for religious meaning in abstraction.

The recording for this 2-CD Prima Facie album is actually fairly old; it was made back in August of 2010 at the University of Salford, in Maxwell Davies' home town in Lancashire. The recording is decent, and the performance outstanding. Up until now I've only known Richard Casey for his Anthony Burgess recordings, which are very good, but don't require the technique of this much more complex composer. This promises to be the standard for the piano music, probably for a long time to come.

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