A year ago Sir Peter Maxwell Davies thought he was on his deathbed: diagnosed with leukaemia, he had been admitted to hospital. That those circumstances spurred him to write a symphony, his Tenth, lent the world premiere on Sunday an undeniable poignancy, especially as the new work – more a meditative cantata than a symphony – deals with the nature of creativity and the imminence of death. Davies was visibly moved at the end of the performance, which had the buzz of a big musical occasion – not least because it found the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on superlative form and the conductor Antonio Pappano at his most inspirational.
Sentiment apart, the Symphony No 10: Alla ricerca di Borromini is not one of Max’s more coherent statements. In its favour, despite a 50-minute unbroken span, there are no longueurs and the underlying ideas are potent. A lifelong Italophile, Max admires the 17th-century architect Francesco Borromini to the point where he imagines himself building an abstract form of architecture in two purely orchestral movements and quoting the architect and his scurrilous critics in the alternating choral movements. These include a life-renouncing litany by the 19th-century poet Giacomo Leopardi that the 79-year-old composer clearly identifies with.
The music is in Max’s stream-of-consciousness mould so that, if he hadn’t explained it in architectural terms, we wouldn’t have a clue what it was doing. The orchestra veers between spacious stasis, metallic crescendos and isolated solos – everything arranged in blocks rather than organically. In the vocal movements, declamatory baritone soliloquies (Markus Butter) are awkwardly juxtaposed with choral plainsong, and it’s only in the mystic intoning of the names of Borromini’s greatest buildings in the finale that the piece glimpses eternity. Like Max’s Orkney music, the symphony resembles a musical patchwork rather than a graphic expression of feelings and ideas.
With a first half of Elgar’s In the South and Britten’s Violin Concerto, the evening had a “Britons looking to the Mediterranean” theme, but there was nothing stereotypically British about the performances. The Elgar exploded with intensity and Maxim Vengerov gave a thrilling account of the Britten, poised between a knife edge and a hair’s breadth.
For Andrew Clark’s round-up of the finest Peter Maxwell Davies recordings, visit ft.com/arts/max