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The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and guitarist Sean Shibe join in a celebration of the life and works of the orchestra's much-loved Composer Laureate, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
I am native, rooted here …
These words, sung by Peter in Act 1, Scene 1 of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes stand as easily for Peter Maxwell Davies’ sense of belonging to his adopted home of Orkney as they do for Britten’s equally essential identification with the Suffolk of his birth.
For more than half his life, Max (as he was known to all) composed music about and for the place and the people of Orkney, and ‘Orkney’ has come to serve as a way for so much of his music to be ‘understood’ by us, his listeners, just as much as it was a poetic and technical vehicle for his imagination. Indeed, writing of his 1977 chamber symphony A mirror of whitening light, he described the view from his croft over Rackwick Bay, ‘where the Atlantic and North Sea meet, as a huge alchemical crucible, rich in speculative connotations, and at all times a miracle of ever-changing reflected light …’
Equipped with George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney tapestry as a guidebook, Max made his first trip to Orkney in July 1970 and, in the way that he was so often in the right place at the right time, met a man called Kulgin Duval on the ferry from Stromness to Hoy. Duval not only offered Max some Highland Park to top up his coffee but also told him that he knew the author of An Orkney tapestry and was on his way to meet with him and two other friends, Archie and Elizabeth Bevan. For such a meeting, the word ‘fortuitous’ seems scarcely adequate, as the Bevans and Brown not only helped Max find Bunertoon—the croft on Hoy where he settled and lived until 1999—but they were Max’s principal allies in the founding of the St Magnus Festival in 1977.
That Max’s move to Orkney had consequences in his music is undeniable and this is often described in terms of transparency of sound and a simplification of gesture—Stone litany (settings of runes for mezzo-soprano and orchestra composed in 1973) is the locus classicus for this reading of Max’s stylistic development. The musical (and psychological) truth however, is more complicated. In 1969, Max had reached what he himself described as a point of musical (and therefore personal) crisis, just as a series of works that are now widely considered masterpieces were premiered in quick succession—Eight songs for a mad king on 22 April, St Thomas Wake on 2 June, Worldes blis on 28 August and Vesalii icones on 9 December. Between the premieres of the last two of these works, Max’s house—Barter’s Town in Dorset—burned down in mysterious circumstances. (Several deeply charred scores remained on his bookshelves in Orkney as a reminder of that fire.)
The newest work on this recording of Orkney pieces is the concert overture Ebb of winter. It was composed at the beginning of 2013, after Max had begun work on his Tenth Symphony and as he received an increasingly serious set of health diagnoses. While the Symphony is an explicit confrontation with mortality—much of it being written while undergoing treatment for leukaemia during the spring and summer of the same year—Ebb of winter is a work of rebirth, written as ‘spring was just starting to come in. The weather and the climate in Orkney changed day to day when I went out for a walk with my dog. The piece is a reaction to the Orkney climate and influenced by Orkney folk music.’
The work displays all the qualities and mastery of Max’s late instrumental style where spaciousness and richness of detail effortlessly coexist, placing the listener at the heart of the musical experience. Even in the contrast of the horn-led introduction and the ensuing oboe solo, the music initiates the play of sound-perspective that makes all the instrumental solos seem like a subjective presence in the musical landscape being painted—an exact parallel with the opening movement of the Tenth Symphony where a violin solo is acknowledged as explicit self-portraiture. Ebb of winter begins and ends in the same key as the Symphony (F sharp/G flat) and both feature intricate canonic working—kinships that are not merely chronological but poetic.
Ebb of winter was written to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra—the first ensemble to give Max a residency as both composer and conductor, and from whom he always said he learned so much. Indeed, the clarity of Max’s late style is unthinkable without the lessons he said he learned through the performance of his own music and the classical repertoire with the SCO.
Hill runes, written in 1981, takes its title and ostensibly its five-movement structure from a highly enigmatic poem by George Mackay Brown:
Thirst: Horse at trough, thrush in quernstone,
The five ploughmen
Much taken up with pewter.
Elder: Andrew who has read the gospel
Two or three times
Has quizzed the clay book also, furrow by furrow.
Smithy: The flames of love, the hammerings, glowings,
End one way—
A cold nail on an anvil.
Kirkyard: Between stone poem and skull
Touches rat, spade, daffodil.
Tractor: The horsemen are red in the stable
With whisky and wrath.
The petrol-drinker is in the hills.
Much as with runes, which in their shapes seem strange and familiar to us at the same time, so with the images of Brown’s poem and with Max’s music.
The first few bars of the Adagio lay the ground for all that is to follow—a typical slow exposition that uncovers a musical earth saturated in major and minor thirds which only reveal themselves plainly in the impassive, melancholy fourth movement. Elsewhere the music proceeds in extraordinary fantasy, by turns agitated and still, and all underpinned by this first musical sentence.
Max spoke of trying to find a way of writing for the guitar that was in no way ‘Spanish’ and the music’s antecedents do indeed lie closer to the lute music of John Dowland in its searching counterpoint—music in which Julian Bream, the dedicatee of Hill runes, excelled. And this, perhaps, suggests a kinship with another secretive/runic work composed for Bream—Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland.
In its original form, Farewell to Stromness is the first of two piano interludes that feature in The Yellow Cake Revue—a fierce cabaret of songs and recitations first performed at the 1980 St Magnus Festival by Eleanor Bron, with Max at the piano. The Yellow Cake Revue was one of two works written in response to the threat of uranium mining in the Orkneys, the other being the vocal symphony Black Pentecost (1979).
Max said some years ago that he would be content to be remembered—if at all—by one or two tunes, and this simple yet deeply affecting chanson triste is certainly already a tune by which he is very well known. It is perhaps a testament to the music’s power to speak directly to so many people that so many instrumentalists have sought to make it their own. It has been arranged for forces ranging from string orchestra to bassoon quartet but this version for solo guitar by Timothy Walker (for many years the guitarist in Max’s group, The Fires of London) was the first such transcription made. It was also the only music played at Max’s funeral, in a version by the Sanday folk fiddler Fionn MacArthur. Hearing the music that day in the open air seemed to return it to a communal tradition as profound and mysterious as the plainsongs with which Max was obsessed all his creative life.
In 2008–9, Max composed a sequence of environmentally-inspired pieces—the Second Violin Concerto (subtitled 'The fiddler on the shore'), The last island (for string sextet), Sea Orpheus (part of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s New Brandenburgs project) and Last door of light—a tone poem written for the Camerata Salzburg in 2008 and premiered by them, with Max conducting, at the Carinthia Summer Festival that same year.
The title for Last door of light comes from Brown’s poem Thorfinn which describes the sea-death of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, the eleventh-century Earl of Orkney, as a ‘salt key in his last door of light’. The image becomes linked in Max’s mind with a greater sea-peril, that of climate change and its likely consequences:
Just close by [my] house are two small uninhabited islands [the Holmes of Ire], with the scattered remains of a tiny medieval church—here are reputed to rest the bodies of hundreds of sailors snared on the rocks through the ages—indeed, there are still many traces of boat wreckage from the last two centuries.
We know that with climate change, the house will sooner or later be drowned—most of the large, flat island is due to disappear.
The present work is a meditation on such individual and communal vulnerability, though it is by no means a completely negative one: we know we must all enter that last door of light: and the way to it is, intermittently, also full of light.
Following a punchy call to attention, Last door of light begins with what ‘could almost be an Island folk melody’. This D major tune seems like a reminiscence of several of the melodies well known from An Orkney wedding, with sunrise, but is in fact a premonition given that Max composed it in the late 1970s and never used it. This paradox is fascinating because Last door of light reveals itself as a strange kind of rondo which constantly looks forwards and backwards at its material.
Alternating moods of contemplation and strenuous forward movement, the overall structure is punctuated by a chorale which appears first as mysterious, glissando-covered string texture and finally as a seemingly bright blast of wind and brass. This ultimate confidence is an illusion: the chorale is founded on the ‘death chord’ from Max’s opera Taverner—a work whose subject is betrayal.
Last door of light is a work whose course is as unpredictable as the Orkney weather that makes a howling appearance at the beginning of Max’s most frequently performed orchestral work, An Orkney wedding, with sunrise. Commissioned and first performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra in May 1985, it was at the suggestion of Richard Rodney Bennett that Williams approached Max to write for his orchestra. Revealingly, Williams was by no means unfamiliar with Max’s music, before this time having attended the first performance of Max’s First Symphony in 1978, during a break in the recording schedule for Superman.
Joyous and show-stopping, An Orkney wedding, with sunrise was written in the immediate aftermath of Max’s Third Symphony—a work suffused with memories of childhood—and the death of his father. It also shares with the symphony a home key of D (a tonality of deep, often autobiographical significance in Max’s work).
The music depicts the party celebrating the marriage of Jack and Dorothy Rendall—whose daughter Lucy’s birth and later marriage were commemorated by Max in two tender choral pieces, Lullaby for Lucy and Suscipe quaesumus. Max’s own description of this musical picture postcard cannot be beaten:
At the outset, we hear the guests arriving, out of extremely bad weather, at the hall. This is followed by the processional, where the guests are solemnly received by the bride and bridegroom, and presented with their first glass of whisky. The band tunes up, and we get on with the dancing proper. This becomes ever wilder, as all concerned feel the results of the whisky, until the lead fiddle can hardly hold the band together any more. We leave the hall into the cold night, with echoes of the processional music in our ears, and as we walk home across the island, the sun rises, over Caithness, to a glorious dawn. The sun is represented by the highland bagpipes, in full traditional splendour.
Christopher Austin © 2016
Roy McEwan © 2016