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Although the Mass is conceived with parts for two organs, Maxwell Davies 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. 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).

from notes by Roderic Dunnett © 2004

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Details for CDA67454 track 7
Recording date
10 July 2003
Recording venue
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Maxwell Davies: Mass & other choral works (CDA67454)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: May 2004
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