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Hyperion Records

CDA67454 - Maxwell Davies: Mass & other choral works

Recording details: July 2003
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: May 2004
Total duration: 65 minutes 9 seconds

'Baker entices some of the most wonderful singing from his choir here while Robert Quinney and Houssart positively revel in their virtuoso interplay. It almost goes without saying that Hyperion's recording captures the full effect of Maxwell Davies' astonishing writing' (Gramophone)

'I'd recommend this CD, strongly, to any music-lover who is moved by the sound of a choir and organ in a cathedral setting' (Fanfare, USA)

'Aisé mais jamais trivial, le sens mélodique de Maxwell Davies trouve un pouvoir de séduction naturel grâce au legato facile des garçons de Westminster, à leur homogénéité exemplaire, à leurs nuances toujours soutenues, déployées dans le Credo sur un large éventail de gris, jusqu'à l'anthracite du Crucifixus' (Diapason, France)

Mass & other choral works

This new recording from Westminster Cathedral presents two of the most important new Mass settings of recent times. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, recently confirmed by Buckingham Palace as the new Master of The Queen’s Music, has throughout his long composing career contributed several miniature sacred choral pieces to the repertory, but these new works represent his first foray into the heart of the liturgy. The Mass for full choir and two organs is based on two plainchants for Whitsun, and is very much a contemporary successor to those great works of the Renaissance with which this choir has cemented so enviable a reputation around the world. Missa parvula, by contrast, is in the mould of Britten’s Missa brevis and is for unison upper voices. Upfront simplicity recalls the world of Duruflé, even of Solesmes, and we are reminded of Maxwell Davies’ long commitment to composing music suitable for children. Both Masses were composed for, and first performed by, The Choir of Westminster Cathedral.

Also included on this disc are the Two Latin Motets, ‘Dum complerentur’ and ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’, composed to form part of the celebrations for Maxwell Davies’ seventieth birthday in 2004, and two extraordinary organ works again based on plainchant themes.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When news emerged soon after the millennium that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was writing not one, but two settings of the Mass, eyebrows were raised: had the wily leopard changed his spots? What could have brought the scourge of the establishment, the doyen of the ’sixties’ avant-garde, the witty and savage lampooner of the Church and all things establishment-connected, to contemplate composing for the Liturgy?

Yet, as Davies’s Expressionist pieces repeatedly remind us, nothing is ever quite what it seems. On closer reflection, there is every reason why this particular composer – not least, at this point in his career where he is making a transition from large-scale symphonic canvases to the more intimate, closely argued genre of chamber music – should come to address the Liturgy itself.

Ever since his student days, when the twenty-something-year-old Maxwell Davies launched himself on an unsuspecting European musical world with works like his wind sextet Alma Redemptoris Mater, the sonata for double wind St Michael, the First Taverner Fantasia and the Seven In Nomine, the plainsong roots of a vast proportion of Davies’s output have been plain for all to see. Just as the figure of Christ is there – overtly, or cloaked and by implication – in at least four of his operas, so the Church, with its scented allure, its vestments, its musical legacy, its morality and its misbehaviour, has always been an object of Davies’s attention (and even affection), whether for revering, or parodying.

In his first composing decade Davies produced more than a dozen motets and carols, some of them embedded in his seminal work O magnum mysterium which, thanks to its substantial concluding organ fantasia, graphically and symbolically unites his styles of writing for children and for adults. The Five Motets, his Four Carols and Five Carols, single Marian settings like Ave Maria and Ave Plena Gracia, his later carol Ave Rex Angelorum and the anthem Hymn to the Word of God (composed to a Byzantine Orthodox text for performance in 1991 by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge) all bear testimony to Davies’s enduring interest in the setting of sacred texts.

But Davies’s commitment runs deeper than mere ‘word setting’. Like Webern, who acquired not just elements but the very roots of his technique from a detailed study of the music of Heinrich Isaac, court composer to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in Innsbruck and Vienna, so Maxwell Davies, from the outset, modelled his whole technique on the intricate patterns of cantus firmus and elaboration – decoration which itself stems from the same tenor cantus – practised by fifteenth-century composers from Dunstable to Ockeghem. Armed with this technique, and his own extensions of it, by the age of thirty Davies was already composing the musical equivalents of cathedral naves and fan-vaulted ceilings.

Effectively, everything in a piece of Maxwell Davies’s music relates to itself, or to a countermelody set at odds and colliding with it, often related to, or sculpted so as to relate to, the original melody. Far from such ‘strict’ practices being restricting, they provide Davies’s music with its sure inner logic, and are the very essence of what being a composer is ‘about’. The underlying plainsong is, in a sense, the crucible from which the composer sups the ingredients to fashion an entire work, for whatever forces – the material, as it were, of a new mystery.

This principle has continued to inform virtually everything Davies has written; all the more so since he devised his own version of the musical ‘magic square’, taking a stage further systems for managing pitch, duration and dynamic devised or explored, in their turn, by immediate predecessors like Webern, Messiaen and Boulez, and their American counterparts. Not only do his self-evidently ‘sacred’ works, such as the radiant Solstice of Light (with organ) composed for an early St Magnus Festival, the glorious, visionary solo cantata Into the Labyrinth, or the gripping oratorio Job, have their roots in plainsong (or its near-equivalent), but most of his symphonies and concertos do too.

Something Maxwell Davies wrote down thirty years ago, soon after arriving at his cliff-top cottage in Hoy, Orkney, and meeting the Catholic poet George Mackay Brown (like the composer himself, much influenced by Eliot, and soon to become Max’s principal literary collaborator), throws light on what he sees as the composer’s role as a hermeneus – a hermeneutic ‘interpreter’, or perhaps rather a conduit – of those deeper images that underlie both the secular patterns of man’s daily life and the religion which valiantly strives to give them meaning.

Possibly long dormant in the composer’s mind, this significant ‘theory’, concept or idea seems to have gained added impetus from Max’s new engagement with the Orkney poet’s revelatory, spiritual image-laden poetry:

The work here at this desk incarnates various interlocking isorhythmic time cycles through a musical material based in plainsong.
The musical moment within such a form is simple, just as birth, death and resurrection are not a sequence of events, but present altogether on different levels in our own being, and through all being.
The simplest seeming event is a step in a dance pattern, within a dance pattern, within a pattern – which may be present only in the furthest background, or even only by implication … determined by other events, by cycles inside that culture, and spanning the centuries. Otherwise, that moment is rootless, without gravity.

In other words, the processes which Maxwell Davies’s music engages (and which, to a degree, he believes all music should engage) – as exemplified by the medieval practitioners of counterpoint, and arguably by cathedral architects too – are not random, but systematic, in such a way as to bring to the surface, or ‘incarnate’, material from the deepest levels of the human psyche.

There is no room here for arbitrary, ‘pretty’ harmonies or spontaneously ‘sugary’ composition. The process of musical creation is not random patterning at a composer’s subjective whim (although there are many aspects of a composition which he will, of necessity, determine). Rather, rooted firmly in secure foundations (most particularly in plainsong – not just the chant of the Gregorian Church, but reaching far back beyond) it is possessed of an unswayingly firm and objective validity, such as to mirror eternal truths.

It follows inevitably that this insistence on musical certainties, no less applicable to his secular output, informs Maxwell Davies’s sacred music too. Although in 2004 he completed a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in English for the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, he had only once before this published a work written specifically for the Liturgy, in the sense of composing a Mass, Canticles, Responses or a Vespers: as recently as 1999 he composed a Jubilate Deo (SATB with organ) for St Paul’s Cathedral choir, directed by John Scott. Yet some things Davies composed long before this have come intriguingly close to it. (“I do remember writing a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for my Cirencester pupils”, the composer says. “I don’t know what happened to it.” An intriguing task for those given to ferreting in Gloucestershire attics!)

Other works, such as Te lucis ante terminum for choir and instruments, the terrifying Ecce manus tradentis (an offshoot of his first ‘betrayal’ opera, Taverner), the later instrumental motet Our Father Which in Heaven Art, or the remarkable Orkney Norn Pater Noster which concludes his a cappella masterpiece Westerlings, have their roots in Church litany and gospel-based ritual; while his first song cycle, From Stone to Thorn, sets a George Mackay Brown poem inspired by the Stations of the Cross, and his dance masterpiece Vesalii Icones draws on the same Catholic sequence.

The Feast of Pentecost – the plainsong for which features in works on the present recording – is also a Maxwell Davies leitmotif, as seen in the symphonic work Black Pentecost and in his vocal setting Dark Angels, where earlier visions of the manifestation of Antichrist are echoed in Davies’s almost obsessively Dürer-like evocation of some future Armageddon, most obvious in his later operas Resurrection, The Lighthouse and The Doctor of Myddfai.

Yet even in his most violently ‘shocking’ works, such as the parody Missa super L’Homme Armé, Davies – like the German Expressionists, or Birtwistle in his rituals based on medieval mummers’ plays or ‘green’ Arthurian legend – seems to say, ‘These deep-rooted images are too important to be trivialized: guard them with care – or else’.

Maxwell Davies’s Mass is dedicated to the memory of Patricia and Dennis Ambler, and is the more substantial of the two settings recorded here – one for full choir with double (or single) organ, the other shorter, simpler and written for boys’ (or girls’) voices only with a modest organ accompaniment – both composed for The Choir of Westminster Cathedral, who first performed them, the Mass on 19 May 2002 and the Missa parvula on 18 March 2003.

Davies recalls how he first came to encounter the great works of the Renaissance – Victoria and Palestrina, and the English Tudor composers Tye, Tallis and Byrd: as an undergraduate at Manchester University he got to know, and learned to love, sixteenth-century repertoire both by singing in the University Choir and by attending (score in hand) performances of sixteenth-(although not fifteenth-) century music both at Manchester Cathedral and at John Aloysius Hansom’s imposing mid-Victorian Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, a little way along Oxford Road, close by the University.

Later, as a student of Goffredo Petrassi in Rome, the young Davies made similar pilgrimages up to the top of the historic Aventine – the second hill of Ancient Rome, where Remus, co-founder of Rome with his brother Romulus, first set up camp – “armed with the Liber Usualis” (the indispensable Catholic manual of plainsong melody), to hear Latin Mass sung at the Benedictine College and Church of Sant’ Anselmo, now the world headquarters of the Benedictine Order, where, Max recalls, “I heard a lot of chants sung”.

It was these early life-enhancing experiences, Maxwell Davies points out, that first taught him to deploy ‘lean and strict polyphony’ within his own work: a quality he also noted in the Masses of Stravinsky and – even more strikingly – Vaughan Williams (in his post-Great War Mass in G minor); each of which, together with Britten’s Missa brevis (also written for Westminster Cathedral) has had a bearing on his approach to composing the present work.

“I wanted”, Max says, “to give people an intense musical and spiritual experience; and if they get that from the setting I’m very happy. But of course, because I’m not a Catholic, I come to it from, as it were, the outside.”

Although the Mass is conceived with parts for two organs, the composer indicates in the score that it is perfectly feasible to perform it with just one. The whole work is founded on two Whitsun plainsong chants, Veni Creator Spiritus and Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes, both of which feature later on this disc. The latter, with its vivid textual evocation of ‘tongues of fire’, also plays a significant role in his Strathclyde Concerto No 1 for oboe and in his recent ‘Antarctic’ Symphony (No 8), where a feather-light, almost miraculous fall of wafer-thin Polar snow put the composer in mind of ‘the descent of the Holy Spirit’.

The Kyrie opens with variants of the chant sung in canon, building from the treble line through middle voices to the bass line below. As so often in Maxwell Davies, it is the chant itself which dictates the harmonies, lending a distinct and characteristic modal feel to the slowly emerging contrapuntal lines, while maintaining linear clarity. The movement builds impressively to eight parts, climaxing gloriously before the soft envoi of the penultimate Kyrie, in which Davies’s trademark interval of a diminished fifth (also evident in the boys’ opening sequence), plus the pitting against each other of apparently conflicting major/minor roots, both form prominent features, before the final diatonic resolution – though even this is not without a question mark, being poised unexpectedly over not the root, but the third in the bass line, which lends rich added resonance.

By the start of the Gloria the plainsong has acquired an almost cheekily joyous ‘major’ demeanour: the second organ adds its own elaborate coloratura comments, with the unvarnished plainsong audible in the pedal. ‘Et in terra pax’ is slow-unfolding, the organ inserting a slow chordal meditation before the joyously asseverative ‘Laudamus te’; whereas the fast-moving canon ‘propter magnam gloriam tuam’ has the energized feel of voices chattering, as if the singers were indeed, like Jesus’s Disciples, infused with many tongues.

Davies is not averse to employing the tested techniques of his predecessors – presenting a theme in its upside down (‘inverted’) or reversed (‘retrograde’) form, compressing or expanding its intervals, or analysing, fragmenting and re-ordering it so that it appears in a fresh guise. Even the most elusive harmonies draw their strength from the embedded plainsong, with materials more often heard as linear sometimes compressed into chordal form.

After a further dramatic, toccata-like organ intervention, the ‘Domine Deus’ is led in by the men canonically, the textures opening out into six-part, and latterly full eight-part, harmony, until the cascading appeals to Christ himself (‘Domine Fili unigenite’) lead to an exciting climax ushering in a strange, unnerving diminuendo. This is the invocation of the Holy Spirit, graphically expressed, with the second organ again adding elaborate, almost violent gestures, like licking tongues of fire, with the Veni Sancte Spiritus plainsong resurfacing in the pedals. By contrast, the ‘Tu solus’ is almost elusively serene, before a canonic ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ and unison, then harmonized, Amens.

Originally Maxwell Davies, like Britten before him, had planned a Missa brevis for Westminster Cathedral, with no setting of the Credo, but prior to the Mass’s premiere on 19 May 2002 he was prevailed upon to furnish this assured unison setting of the Credo. The flowing, largely narrative plainsong assumes added intensity at certain key moments – Christ’s Incarnation and Burial – the latter leading straight into the growing and glowing confidence of ‘Et resurrexit’.

The Sanctus launches out with an unexpected, and uplifting, unison major seventh; here again, the apparent density of the textures (in fact there are just five voices) is remarkable, and this is sustained through the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’, in which a foretaste of the staccato organ passage that will open the Benedictus can be heard. The choir rises to a fever pitch at the words ‘gloria’ and ‘Hosanna’, before the organ dissolves the temperature and serenely embarks on an (even in this context) French-sounding ostinato-like figure – in fact the plainsong motto, picked out once more on the pedals.

In the Agnus Dei, the organ staccato has moved up to the treble, where it decorates the quasi-fugal entries. First tenors and basses, then the boys’ and altos’ lines are accorded prominence, while the lush harmonies of the final ‘dona nobis pacem’ seem all but a tribute to Messiaen, one of the composers Davies most admires (even though he has impishly satirized him elsewhere).

By comparison, Davies’s Missa parvula seems astonishing in its comparative simplicity: one is constantly reminded of his skills at writing for children, both in Cirencester and in Orkney. Indeed the opening phrase, which progresses by, as it were, question and answer, is as pure and perfect a model of how an ideal tune is constructed as Davies’s famous child’s piano piece, Farewell to Stromness. Only in the flattening of the F sharp to an F natural (in the context of D major tinged with E minor) is there a hint of non-diatonic Church modality. Much else in this exquisite set of Kyries would not be out of place in Duruflé, or in Gelineau, if not at Solesmes itself.

The Gloria is darker, not so much in the voices, but in the chromatic organ part, which only heightens the intensity of the ensuing word setting, proceeding often by semitones, by turns modal and diatonic – part assertive, part beseeching. Strikingly, despite its very tonic resolution, it is in the interval of a falling tritone that Christ is invoked at ‘Domine Fili’; thus what was once the derided (and feared) diabolus in musica, whether chastened or ironic, now serves as the very hub of the invocation of our Lord. Davies’s success, right up to the last Amen, consists in finding the right balance between the use of existing and recognizable material with the introduction of seemingly ‘new’ elements. The final Amen is significant, and will reappear in modified guise at the close of the Credo.

In the Credo the boys’ voices echo the opening of the Kyrie; here again the interval of a diminished fifth (so important in Davies’s 1960s works as a bald gesture of betrayal and desolation) reappears in chastened, almost deferential guise, first in the invocation to Jesus the Son, and subsequently at the very evocation of Christ’s Incarnation and Passion. The unexpected flattening of the vocal line at ‘sepultus est’ permits an unexpected, Duruflé-like cadence, and for the ‘Et resurrexit’ a joyous diatonicism takes hold once again. A serener pacing from ‘Confiteor’ leads on to slowly descending Amens, which hark back to the Gloria.

The opening of the Sanctus, with its ostinato-like semi-staccato figures in the organ part, bears some relation to the Benedictus of the other, larger Mass. Here the bold opening thematic material is reiterated in a modified form, coloured by flattened notes in both voice and organ. The two moods continue to alternate through the ‘Hosannas’, before a piece of solo writing quite astonishing for Maxwell Davies – although the unashamedly sentimental moment is soon blown away, like musical chaff, by the characterful ‘Hosannas’ that follow. The Agnus Dei reassumes the gentle demeanour of the opening Kyries, again switching easily between major and minor, a bit like updated Fauré in its simplicity, and drawn to an exquisite close – though not without a slightly unsettled surprise in the final cadence.

The Missa parvula is dedicated to the composer Oliver Knussen, a one-time pupil of Davies who, like him, has done perhaps more than anyone else for the advancement of challenging and serious contemporary music by young British composers.

The first of Maxwell Davies’s Two Latin Motets, Dum complerentur was written around the same time as the Mass, and received its premiere from the English choir Canticum, directed by Mark Forkgen, in Poole, Dorset, on 17 January 2004, as part of the Maxwell Davies seventieth birthday celebrations. The work draws on one of the two plainsong chants also used in the Mass. It is designed to be sung a cappella, as here, but with the option of a supporting (though not independent) organ part, if required. As before, the intervals of the plainsong itself, used contrapuntally, dictate both the linear unfolding of the melody and the chromatic-sounding harmony. The words, taken from the Vulgate (Acts 2), tell of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, who were ‘all gathered together in one place’.

It is worth noting that in 2002 Maxwell Davies composed yet another work on the subject of the descent of the Holy Spirit: Linguae Ignis, for cello solo and ensemble, written for and performed by Vittorio Ceccanti and the Contempoartensemble in Florence in May 2002, which significantly, using medieval isometric processes, centres upon the gradual ‘transformation’ of one of the two plainsong chants used in the Mass (Dum complerentur) into the other (Veni Sancte Spiritus). The composer’s ‘crucible’ is, it seems – through the ‘alchemy’ of music – forever dissolving and forging anew.

Perhaps the most arresting moment in the whole motet comes quite early on: the unnerving hush of an extraordinary held chord (‘domum’), already suggested by the building, surging phrase ‘replevit totam domum’. This stilled, held chord, or moment of stasis, produces an ecstatic effect so intense and unexpected that it can suggest nobody else except Beethoven – the Ninth Symphony, or the late piano sonatas. The treble line ‘apparuerunt illis’ is imitated canonically – though with canonic variants – by tenor and bass, and the temperature and intensity rise considerably as fire seems to lick above the head of each Disciple, offset by angelic alleluias. The last section is almost as surprising – a serene, slow statement of ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus, reple tuorum corda’, building to two increasingly dramatic settings of the word ‘accende’ – ‘kindle’ – before subsiding onto a slow, devout ‘alleluia’, relaxing onto a lush final cluster.

Dum complerentur is dedicated to Tim Ambler, who commissioned the Mass for The Choir of Westminster Cathedral in memory of his parents.

The second of Maxwell Davies’s Two Latin Motets, Veni Sancte Spiritus (not to be confused with the substantial twenty-minute work for soloists, chorus and orchestra which Davies composed for Princeton High School in 1963, or his Dunstable arrangement/fantasia of 1972) was written in memory of Goffredo Petrassi (1904–2003), Davies’s teacher in Rome (a dedicated and challenging one – often a lesson might last for most of a day!), who lived to the grand old age of nearly ninety-nine, and who was for almost half a century the doyen of Italy’s contemporary composers. The text, variously attributed to the eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth century and known as the ‘Golden Sequence’ (Archbishop Stephen Langton is a candidate for authorship), is of a different order from that of Veni Creator Spiritus: a benign and penitential prayer, quite unlike the dazzling irruption of the Pentecostal narrative in Dum complerentur.

Davies’s more severe, chromatic-sounding harmonies (although in this kind of linear, quasi-modal writing the word ‘chromatic’ is usually a misnomer) are, appropriately, reserved for the censorious lines ‘Lava quod est sordidum … Sana quod est saucium’. Davies’s hallmark – the interval of a diminished fifth – appears most brazenly, proceeding as a kind of ‘parallel’ fifth, at ‘Rege quod est devium’: as if the diabolus in musica would inevitably rear his head with relish at the notion of any kind of musical (or social) ‘deviance’. The rest of the motet, however, after this spiritual onslaught, is far from combative; rather it is serene: certain enraptured harmonies would not seem out of place in Howells. The closing Amen recalls both the Missa parvula and Dum complerentur before settling onto a conclusive A major chord.

The trudging, staccato tenor line at the opening of Davies’s organ piece Veni Creator Spiritus launches out over an even slower-moving bass pedal, until a striking counterpoint enters, almost insistently legato, in the upper (in fact alto) register. This slowly unfolding pattern stands in direct descent, not just from the Chorale Preludes of Sweelinck, via J S Bach and J G Walther, through to Flor Peeters, but conceivably (given the independence of the voices) the Bach Trio Sonata too. Stage by stage, in all three parts, elements of the Veni Creator tune are sifted; a decorated passage in 3/4 time emerges; and partway through the ensuing quaver section there are faint echoes of the dotted Scotch ‘snap’ rhythm which plays a major role in many of Davies’s secular works.

But most remarkable of all is a strikingly assertive statement of the adapted plainsong, presented as a wonderfully intense, galvanizing chordal or chorale sequence, registered on what can only be described as a thrilling Pleines Orgues; late in the piece, fading memories and fragments of the plainsong slowly evaporate in the upper register. The mood throughout is unostentatious and devotional.

Veni Creator Spiritus was written for Jo Savory in memory of Max’s cousin, Roger Walden, and was first performed by James Eaton at the organ of Rochester Cathedral on 15 February 2002.

Maxwell Davies (who once kept a superb modern portative organ in his sparsely furnished music room in Dorset) had already composed Three Organ Voluntaries – each based on a traditional sixteenth-century Scottish hymn chant, and two of them quite elaborately decorated in Davies’s own medieval-informed manner and idiom – by 1976, two decades before he returned to the instrument to write Reliqui domum meum. This moving short organ piece was composed in memory of his good friend and close colleague, the organist Richard Hughes, a stalwart of the Orkney music scene, who died in 1996, just a few days after the poet George Mackay Brown. (Max, a valuer of close friendship, thus lost two of his closest collaborators in quick succession.) During that twenty year interval, he also composed his Organ Sonata, based on a Maundy Thursday plainsong fragment from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, of which Hughes was the dedicatee, and gave the premiere in June 1982.

The overall mood of this sensitive commemorative piece, first performed in April 1996 at Kirkwall East Church, on the Orkney mainland, by Heather Rendall, is quite sombre – if anything, even more simple and restrained than that of Veni Creator Spiritus. The hushed, carol-like central section – sounding as if the adapted chorale were being heard like some distant memory or from afar – is of touching simplicity. This piece might almost have been written by one of Davies’s sixteenth- or seventeenth-century predecessors: Praetorius, perhaps, or Schein. With the return of the plainsong a semitone lower, the harmonies and false relations come tangibly closer to Maxwell Davies’s ‘own’ music, as if by way of a brief, fond ‘farewell’ from the composer; but the textures soon simplify once more, and the work modulates uncomplicatedly and peacefully with an almost unnoticed Tierce de Picardie onto D major.

Roderic Dunnett © 2004

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