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with Don Mager

The Strathclyde Cycle Comes Full Circle

Davies, Peter Maxwell. Strathclyde Concerto No.9 for Six Woodwind Instruments, Strathclyde Concerto No.10: Concerto for Orchestra, and Carolísima. Collins 145972 1997.

Peter Maxwell Davies has the best maintained and most extensive webpage of any composer I know. Over a decade ago, he began a very ambitious commission for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra-to produce a cycle of concerti featuring various of that orchestra's virtuosi in solo and combinations. With the premiers and recordings of Concerto No.9 and No.10 in 1996 and 1997, the project is complete. With ten concerti in a set, one immediately wants to make comparisons to the concerti cycles produced during the late Baroque by Bach, Handel, Zelenka and the like.

Writing about Davies is not easy. He is alarmingly prolific and has established at least three distinct musical identities. The early "bad boy" composer of the theater pieces produced in conjunction with the ensemble, Fires of London, put him on the musical map. Although some of the outrage and effrontery of those works peeks through from time to time in his later works, as in brief passages for instance of the recent oratorio Job, for the most part the wild eclectic blend of polyphony and ragtime, screaming brass and tango is well behind him. The second identity, which grew out of his work on musical shows like The Boy Friend and some of the ballets, is what I call the "pops concert" identity. In the last two decades, he has developed an extensive repertoire of "easy listening" pieces, most with a strong Scottish flavor, some of which have become standards of pops and promenade concert fare. Doubtless, the most popular is An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (1985). On this CD, Carolísima, a birthday suite written for the wife of the Danish Consul in Edinburgh, is just that sort of thing, almost frothy with its lifts and lilts of Scots whimsy. It is clearly a CD filler.

The final pair of the Strathclyde concerti are far more substantial and represent the third of Davies' musical identities. This identity is the probing, meditative, ecological symphonist who emerged in the 1980s in conjunction with his move from London to the Orkney Islands in the North Sea. This Davies has developed a sense of musical pulse, long illusive melodic line, and textural counterpoint, within the context of sweepingly architectured movements, which seeks to find musical representations for the actions of waves, winds, clouds and the startling effects of light and shadow in a far north landscape. At the core of this side of Davies production are the cycle of six symphonies and the 10 Strathclydes. The difference is that, whereas the symphonies are vast hour-length soundscapes, the concerti tend to be shorter and more focused on the intimacies possible with chamber music; but the musical procedures are akin to those exploited in the symphonies.

The first eight concerti in the cycle, in various ways speak to (or at least against) the concerto genre in its 19th century development. That is, the concerto which apposes soloist and an accompanying orchestra, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in competition. As the culmination of a cycle of solo and combination concerti, No.9 and No.10 set out to accomplish very specific culminating tasks. No.9 collects six, one might say, exotic woodwind soloists (piccolo, alto flute, English horn, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, counterbasson) to form a concertino ensemble which develops its textures in 26 short sections of an ongoing but intermittent allegro movement against a somber string background. The strings in turn link the winds sections in a continuum of andantes, adagios and lentos-dark luminous "pools" of music that seem to evoke infinity--the spaces of arctic skies and the breadths of horizon of northern seascapes. Thus, No.9 seems to argue for an earlier pre-romantic concerto which viewed the orchestra as an ensemble made up not so much of choirs or sections (as is the extended modern symphony orchestra) but rather of variable combinations of distinct solo textures, as Bach exploited in his Brandenburg cycle. In this sense it gestures towards closing the Strathclyde cycle by circling listeners back to the 18th century origins of the genre itself.

By contrast, No.10 offers a completely different take on the concerto form. As a concerto for orchestra it immediately invites comparison with the form developed in central Europe by Bartok, Martinu, Lutoslawski and Husa, in which the entire orchestra is treated simultaneously as a symphonic unit and an assembly of virtuoso sections (brass, percussion, strings, winds. In the liner notes, Stephen Pruslin says of this procedure, "The orchestra can form either a wide waveband of soloists or a single tutti block, with the chiaroscuro of instrumental combinations providing every degree of difference in between" (6). Thus, whereas No.9 invites listeners to reflect on the Baroque origins of the concerto genre, No.10 pulls us forward to the genre's most recent metamorphosis-the 20th century concerto for orchestra.

As a Chamber Concerto for Orchestra, of course, Davies does not produce the epic thrills that Bartok or Husa do in their works for large orchestras; for Davies, everything is on an altogether more intimate scale. Even so, with the inclusion of brass and prominent timpani, unlike No.9, the last of the Strathclydes is definitely an extroverted affair, and in the last few moments a fleeting raucous outburst hauntingly recalls the London "bad boy" of the 1960s and 1970s.

What impresses me about the introspective Davies is the way these works, be they the recent symphonies or any of the ten Strathclyde Concerti, seem to deliver up their musical riches so parsimoniously. A strange thing to say? A strange thing to admire?

What I mean is that a first, second, even fifth attentive listening seems, to my ears at least, to be an unsensational, sometimes static, and even indeterminate affair. Indeed, there are moments of luminous sound, passages of thrilling momentum, but overall the impression at the outset is that the music does not go anywhere very purposeful, and certainly does not get there very fast. However, on repeated returns and further listenings, like the northern landscapes that so intensely ground the entire sound world Davies is evoking, slowly-ever so grudgingly-ever so stingily-the rich textural beauties, the haunting whiffs of melodic line, the luxuriant soundscapes of kaleidoscopic colors reveal themselves. And as they do, the sure inevitable architecture that undergirds the size of these works becomes audible. This is a music that expects absorption and focused listening. But the listener investments are well rewarded. For me, the Orkney Davies is the single composer of the last quarter of this century who seems to demand the most of listeners in terms of attention, and in turn delivers some of the most profound and inimitable music experiences available to us.

Those experiences when they finally arrive carry listeners into aural spaces and aural depths that intimate infinities and oceanic heaving depths, of seasonal and climactic surges and swells, of periodicity and time, of astral skies with their dazzling lights.

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