Hyperion Records

Missa parvula
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.

from notes by Roderic Dunnett © 2004

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