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Maxwell Davies builds a ‘church’

28 February 2014

Roderic Dunnett hears a new symphony


Early work: A Lowland Church, 1916, by the Scottish Colourist who is the sub­ject of "J. D. Fergusson", at the Scot­tish Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 15 June. From the catalogue by Alice Strang, Elizabeth Cumming, and Sheila McGregor (National Galleries of Scotland, £14.95 (CT Bookshop £13.45); 978-1-906270-62-9)

Early work: A Lowland Church, 1916, by the Scottish Colourist who is the sub­ject of "J. D. Fergusson", at the Scot­tish Gallery of Modern Art, Edin...

ITALIAN church architecture has long been a passion of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the composer and (until April) Master of the Queen's Music, whose almost epic Tenth symphony had its première this month at the Barbican Hall, in London.

Brunelleschi's Florentine Duomo provided the design inspiration for Davies's Third Symphony. Bramante, whose interior plans for St Peter's, Rome formed the basis of the later completion by Michelangelo, figures high in his pantheon.

Yet none has more preoccupied him than Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), the brilliant, individualistic, tempestuous, and self-congratulatory architect of numerous churches in Rome - including St Agnes's on the historic Piazza Navona, the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith, and not least the papal basilica, St John Lateran, which houses Michelangelo's huge and sombre sculpture of Moses.

Maxwell Davies brings many of these church locations - St Ives, St Mary of the Sorrows, and poignantly, the Falconieri Chapel, which the architect completed shortly before his self-inflicted death - into his Tenth Symphony, forming the words of a kind of memorial chant maintained by members of the London Symphony Chorus, under the direction here of the Royal Opera's Music Director, Sir Anthony Pappano.

They offset a gloomy text, falling broadly into three parts: a vitriolic anonymous attack on Borromini's character and competence as a church architect; a tragic, despairing, self-addressed virtual farewell to life: "Or poserai" - "Now you can rest for ever, O weary heart of mine", nihilistic lines penned two years before he too died by the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, one of Davies's literary favourites; and Borromini's disgruntled - and here terrifyingly projected - description, in vigorous detail, of a frenzied suicide attempt.

Davies's passion for ecclesiastical design, which dates back to his student days in Rome, is primarily structural. It underlies the entire workings of the new Symphony - as it has other works in the past - not least his Seventh Naxos String Quartet, the titles of whose movements are taken from Borromini's churches. The composer says of his symphony: "I feel I'm building a church in music; I wanted to create something as aurally startling now, in its context, as a Borromini church must have been visually then."

The programme note refers tothe vivid writing of the purely instrumental first movement, where opening utterances of marimba and then clarinet soon yield to vigorous woodwind chorus and snapping trumpets, as if they were a kind of "building site": a marshalling yard of the materials to be assembled, almost as if the development section and exposition were intermingled. The scherzo-like third movement is also just instrumental.

Much hinged on the carefully rehearsed chorus, whose enunciation of the opening invective and intoning of the Leopardi near-Sonnet - virtually a cappella, with sprinklings of minimal clarinet and flute (Davies's use of alto flutes alone is mesmerising), and latterly pizzicato cellos and violas - was compelling. But, above all, I admired the German baritone Markus Butter, who turned the final sequence into a superb declamation: virtually an operatic scena. Maxwell Davies's symphonic writing as a whole is a far cry from being properly appreciated and respected; but this work, with its intriguing format, left one in little doubt that the word "masterpiece" applies.

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