Hot on the heels of English Touring Opera’s revival of The Lighthouse comes another Peter Maxwell Davies exhumation – Eight Songs for a Mad King, a work long regarded as representative of Maxwell Davies at his most concentrated and inventive. Premiered in 1969, it epitomised the repertoire he was building for the Fires of London, the ensemble that, for at least a decade, was at the centre of his creativity. The similarly flexible Hebrides Ensemble may not have a composer to lead the way, but it can claim to be a spiritual heir to Maxwell Davies’s long-defunct group. In cellist William Conway it has an artistic director with an eye for intelligent programmes – and, in this touring show, a flair for the unpredictable. Unpredictability is a theatrical quality, entirely apposite to Eight Songs, but it can be a musical virtue too. This “cabaret”, performed without interval or pause for applause, was full of arresting, unsettling surprises.
It began with a bang, as Glasgow’s blacked-out Old Fruitmarket resonated with the thwack of Xenakis’s Rebonds B for drums. We needed that jolt, virtuosically delivered by percussionist Oliver Cox, to appreciate the seamless transition to Purcell – or, rather, the prismatic elaborations of his Fantazias that Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen composed in 1995 for the 300th anniversary of his death. Then came the high-flying birdsong of George Benjamin’s Flight for solo flute, ravishingly played by Rosemary Eliot, and Thomas Adès’s eerie-groovy Catch, given a peripatetic, spatial dimension by Yann Ghiro, the Hebrides’ clarinettist and star turn.
And so the foundation was laid for Eight Songs, which make melody out of the ravings of King George III. Have its theatrical devices lost currency in the past decade of neglect? Not a bit: Marcus Farnsworth found humour as well as pathos in the part, pitching the song-speech as naturally as any of the role’s most distinguished interpreters. His performance took on a disturbing edge when he grabbed and smashed the violinist’s instrument, but far from looking gratuitous, it was so consistent with the trajectory of Ben Twist’s “bare essentials” staging that you almost wondered if Farnsworth had lost himself in the part.