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Fragments and fiery tongues

03 October 2014

Roderic Dunnett hears works by Tavener and Maxwell Davies


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 to none.

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, and Moscow.

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 orchestra).

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 moonrise.

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.

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