January 6, 2014 5:19 pm

All the Best: Peter Maxwell Davies

A round-up of the finest recordings by the British composer and Companion of Honour
Peter Maxwell Davies conducts a rehearsal of his experimental piece ‘Revelation and Fall’ in 1968©Erich Auerbach/Getty

Peter Maxwell Davies conducts a rehearsal of his experimental piece ‘Revelation and Fall’ in 1968

The appointment of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as a Companion of Honour in the New Year Honours list was good news for classical music in the UK. The award, given to outstanding achievers in the arts, literature, science, politics, industry and religion, suggests the nation has finally taken the Manchester-born composer to its heart. Master of the Queen’s Music since 2004, Maxwell Davies has done more than most to assert the value of music in public life. As composer, educator and festival founder, he has become one of our most cherishable musicians.

It was not always so. In 1969, when his orchestral score Worldes Blis was introduced at the Proms, many walked out. Max, as he is widely known, was a firebrand, intent on challenging the establishment. Even in middle age, when his music became less avant-garde, he spoke out on gay rights and leftwing issues.

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The shift from rebel-subversive to venerable institution will be consolidated in coming months with a string of world premieres, indicating that Max is approaching his 80th birthday in September with undimmed creative vigour – despite undergoing treatment last year for leukaemia.

On February 2 the London Symphony Orchestra will give the first performance of his Tenth Symphony, and on March 18 the restored Royal Festival Hall organ will be unveiled with a work commissioned from Max. Unlike the boos for Worldes Blis 45 years ago, these pieces will almost certainly be cheered. And Max – a trim, wizard-like figure, all dazzling eyes, sudden gestures and mask-like smile – will lap up the attention.

Posterity will judge how much of this has lasting merit, but anyone approaching his oeuvre should beware: Max was always too prolific for his own good. The best is well worth hearing. The worst is over-complex and downright ugly. That is probably why no British orchestra has set about organising a Maxwell Davies retrospective.

To separate the wheat from the chaff, we must fall back on his CD catalogue – an unusually rich one, because Max has conducted and recorded his music more assiduously than any of his contemporaries. His discography is dominated by the Naxos label, which has not only reissued recordings originally released on other labels, but also commissioned 10 Naxos Quartets (2002-07) – the finest product of Max’s maturity.

In the 1960s, together with his Manchester confrères Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr, Maxwell Davies smashed the English consensus that modernism was a threat to civilised values. By adding medieval plainsong and modalism to his expressionist armoury, he struck a rich seam of harmonic and structural possibilities, flexible enough to allow notes to sound good together, bold enough to communicate at gut level. Several works from this most dynamic phase of his career are preserved on CD, including Worldes Blis conducted by the composer.

But the best place to start in any Max anthology is Decca’s Portrait double-album. O magnum mysterium (1960), written for and performed by the choir of the Cirencester school where Max once taught, evokes the spirit of “new age medievalism” as effectively as the east European composers who later made it a brand. Also included is the wonderful Hymn to St Magnus (1972) and the Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s “In Nomine” (1965), a Bergian symphony that makes a stronger impression than the Taverner opera Max was writing at the time.

Oliver Knussen’s excellent BBC performance of Taverner, on NMC, is strictly for Max devotees – as are his other large-scale stage works. Some of these can be purchased through Max’s website, Maxopus.com.

All his most pungent theatre work was inspired by The Fires of London, the chamber ensemble he led from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot have retained their impact. You can hear them with their original advocates on Unicorn, or on an up-to-date recording by Psappha, which includes a valuable spoken commentary by the composer.

Vesalii Icones for mixed forces has similar theatricality: Naxos pairs it with Linguae Ignis, a more recent work for cello and ensemble, performed with finesse by Contempoartensemble. Westerlings , a choral masterpiece from the 1970s, is also worth hearing in a superb recording by the BBC Singers.

Max spent the 1980s and 1990s composing long-winded exercises in transformation and colour, the logic of which could only begin to make sense in the context of the setting he claimed as inspiration – the storm-battered Orkney Islands off the north of Scotland, his adopted home. Little of this music, including Symphonies Nos 2 to 8 and the Strathclyde Concertos, bears repeated listening.

The past 15 years have found Max rediscovering his classical roots. His sacred music, grounded in the cathedral choir tradition, is best represented by Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis on Delphian and a Mass for Westminster Cathedral on Hyperion.

His greatest legacy will surely be the Naxos Quartets, recorded by the Maggini Quartet. Writing for four string players forced Max to expose the core of his musicianship. The 10 quartets follow a vein of concentrated inwardness comparable to Beethoven’s late oeuvre: they distil a lifetime’s creativity.

This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music. For more ‘All the Best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark, see:

Delius

La traviata

Handel’s Messiah

Mahler symphonies

Lutoslawski

Sergiu Celibidache

Wagner’s Ring

Carlos Kleiber

Goldberg Variations

Ravel’s piano music

Claudio Abbado

Janácek’s operas

Winterreise

Eugene Onegin

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