LAST YEAR could have brought a double loss to British music. As
it happened, the death was reported in November, two months short
of his 70th birthday, of Sir John Tavener, never a well man, but
one whose commitment to religious and liturgical music was second
The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, have long been
among Tavener's doughtiest champions. In a BBC Prom late in the
season, to celebrate the birthday that might have been, Phillips
revealed to perfection the purity, sensitivity, and finesse of
Tavener's writing, and the aptness of his own sensitive approach;
and, alongside the wondrous multi-section Ikon of
Light (no one performs it better) unveiled perhaps Tavener's
last choral work, the Requiem Fragments.
It is a miraculous piece: Tavener seems to have found a new
eloquence that, for me, harked back to his earliest writings - so
perhaps this was an old eloquence rediscovered with a new courage.
It left me sensing that the composer might have been on the
threshold of something new, a move forward from the sometimes
obsessive patternings of his mature works.
Phillips brought freshness, a kind of common sense, and immense
meaning with every gesture. These are good days for the Tallis
Scholars, and, paradoxically, for the composer, who wanted them to
introduce this mixture of fragments and through-composition, and
dedicated this epilogue to them.
In contrast, just as he completed his decade as Master of the
Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, facing mortality with the
sudden onset of an aggressive form of leukaemia, rallied to
celebrate his 80th birthday this autumn in London, Glasgow, Rome,
Four times the BBC Proms honoured "Max", a record for so
modernist a living composer. The prime celebrations came in a
late-night concert on his birthday (Dvořák's, too), with his old
comrades-in-arms the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, bringing a work
new to London, the Concert Overture (in effect a symphonic poem)
Ebb of Winter, and, as the climax of the late-night
concert, his famous curtain-closer An Orkney Wedding, with
Sunrise. Here holy nuptials are celebrated with the surprise
and vociferous entry of a bagpiper in full regalia.
Yet the essence of Maxwell Davies's art perhaps lay elsewhere:
in the Clarinet Concerto, one of several commissioned by the former
Strathclyde Council. This is a classic revelation of his thinking,
in that the tune forms not the opening, as in a Mozart symphony,
but the conclusion, to which all the complex preliminary material
seems to be building (the other classic example is his 1969
Worldes Blis, where the medieval tune is heard, or almost
not heard, near the close, played on tiny bells deep in the
Linked by a cadenza for the soloist, Dimitri Ashkenazy (son of
the Russian piano virtuoso and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy), which
is like a sort of junkyard of all the ideas and permutations
through which the underlying material might be turned and twisted -
a technique that Maxwell Davies revisits in his ten Naxos
Quartets - the slightly ironically named "Morrison tune" (the
original soloist was Lewis Morrison, and that may not be the end of
the sly allusions) is heard in all its serene beauty.
It is one of those moments in Maxwell Davies's work when a
medley of cacophony can yield the most gorgeous modal or tonal
A little undercelebrated in the provinces, the composer did well
this year from London. A hefty chunk of his ballet on the
English-Danish Queen of the title, Caroline Mathilde, was
aired (how many people know that he also wrote a ballet based on
Salome for the future Royal Danish Ballet choreographer
Flemming Flindt in 1978?). Along, too, came his Sinfonia,
written in his twenties, and still as startling and minutely
chiselled as it appeared in the early 1960ss.
But the plum came when Rebecca Bottone - one of the most
thrilling hopes among young English voices today - essayed
Revelation and Fall, Maxwell Davies's 1966 setting of a
text by the Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl, who died at
the start of the First World War. "Let blood flow from moonlit feet
and blossom on nocturnal paths where the screeching rat rushes . .
. madness leapt from my steed's crimson eyes. . ."
This is meant to shock. Although Miss Bottone was,
uncharacteristically, a little shy on this occasion, so we missed
the fire and brimstone of the late Mary Thomas's early performances
of the work, her shimmering articulation could not be faulted.
Nor could that of Timothy Gill. Under Sian Edwards's nursing
with the London Sinfonietta, he worked wonders on Linguae
Ignis, in effect Maxwell Davies's Second Cello Concerto, and
one of many works since the Millennnium which he has based on the
story of the day of Pentecost.
So here we were listening to, and marvelling at, the unfolding
beauty of this work. But why does no one perform Maxwell Davies's
Strathclyde Concerto No. 2 - his actual first cello
concerto? Do promoters not appreciate that this is one of
the most gorgeous works of the entire 20th-century repertoire?
Perhaps they simply don't look.