Thursday, December 15, 2005

Message from MaxOpus Music

This pre-Christmas set of 14 releases on MaxOpus Music brings a crop
of first-ever recordings, both of brand new works, three of which were
first performed in 2005, and of older works which have never been
previously commercially available. Included is the first large-scale
work which Max has written as Master of the Queen's Music. The
occasion was a Gala Concert in commemoration of the sixtieth
anniversary of the end of World War II which Max conducted in the
presence of Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of
Edinburgh, and the Prime Minister Tony Blair and the leaders of the
opposition, and the Ambassadors of the various countries represented
in the music performed at that concert who were on different sides of
the conflict - Germany, Russia, Japan, France, the United States and
the United Kingdom The climax of the concert came with COMMEMORATION
SIXTY:

"I've never done anything like it before," says Max of his huge
cantata written in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of
Second World War. This is only true up to a point. An ambivalent (to
put it mildly) attitude to armed conflict and organised religion has
long been evident in Max's music, but as he says, no one could
possibly confuse this work with a glorification of war. In its
incongruous juxtapositions of march and hymn and fanfare there is both
Max and Mahler (the weighty forces used here recall the latter's
Eighth Symphony), as there is in their eventual combination and
resolution, and in the hope invested in youthful renewal, both for
nature and for Man.

BEACONS OF HOPE is the brief but large-scale military march was
written to open the same concert that featured Commemoration Sixty, a
concert which Max planned himself. It ranged from the simple nobility
of Fanfare to the Common Man, through the sly wit of Prokofiev's
'tribute' to an imaginary soldier and incompetent soldiery in
Lieutenant Kije, to the overt mourning of Barber's Adagio. Only the
first two can be heard in Beacons of Hope, but the swinging main theme
has an authentic swing that could have come straight from the works
bands of Salford that Max heard as a boy.

As far away in atmosphere from the large scale of the two previous
works comes A SAD PAVAN FOR THESE DISTRACTED TYMES a work written for
the intimacy of a string quartet. This pavan is not a transcription of
Thomas Tomkins' original of the same name, except for a brief
quotation near the end, where the quartet members are instructed to
imitate their viol consort forebears. Max plays with Scotch snaps and
the lilting beat and shifting emphases of the original dance form by
continually changing tempi and time signatures. Such technical
challenges doubtless proved a challenge for the quartets required to
perform it at the 2005 Paulo Borciani competition, for which it was
commissioned, but it must also have been intriguing to hear, in
several performances, how different parts could snap into focus; the
tempi divisions suggest not sections but layers, as if multiple hymns
and songs of melancholy were combining to lament 'these distracted
tymes'. For Tomkins, this meant 1649 and England's disarray after the
execution of Charles I. For Max and 2005?

A first recording of the much older BRASS QUINTET, from 1981, fills a
gap in the repertoire and this work is one of Max's major pieces Apart
from several works for younger performers or of specially Orcadian
significance written by Max around 1981, the Brass Quintet is notable
for its abstract power and what Mahler called (referring to the Third
Symphony) 'Frohliche Wissenschaft', or joyful science. It is as if Max
has gone on a contrapuntal holiday, setting himself tasks and
challenges rather in the way that Bach does in his keyboard works. The
opening intervals of a ninth, then a seventh, are heard again very
many times: is this a journey towards the octave, or away from it? In
the opening slow introduction, the counterpoint builds tension
inexorably, until the following Allegro releases it; the main body of
the third movement plays canonic games with abandon (Max returns to
the same sort of mood and music in his Fourth Naxos Quartet,
Children's Games) until a slower conclusion seems to set opposing
forces against each other with astonishing force.

SEA EAGLE, written at roughly the same time as the Brass Quintet, as
taken its place as one of the most important works ever written for
solo horn. You could call Sea Eagle a study, both in the potential of
the horn and in the character of the bird, which was close to
extinction until a breeding programme started to increase numbers in
the far north of Scotland in the 1980s. The horn's natural temperament
makes it ideal for Max's distinctive brand of modally inflected
melodies, and they are evident throughout the first two movements. The
initial Adagio takes off with great swoops and, after a calm interlude
builds towards the whoops and scales which perhaps evoke the low,
barking call of the eagle itself. The slow second movement is one
long, majestic melody, and a final, very quick Scherzo flies off the
page, rising to the horn's highest note and disappearing into the
ether.

Another first-ever recording is DE ASSUMTIONE BEATAE MARIAE VIRGINIS,
dating from 2002. This important, atmospheric work for 14 instruments
forms the point where Max's Fires of London pieces and his symphonic
writings meet. It's full of bristling activity and hushed excitement,
a glistening sea of sound. Following a brassy transition, you can
instinctively feel the Plainsong moving below, like eerily dissonant
birdsong, or rock cracking beneath the surface (compare Max's
Antarctic Symphony), while an unnervingly plodding marimba delivers
echoes of some ghostly chorale. Although it's no mere 'tone-poem', Max
invokes ideas of the Virgin Mary down the ages, cheekily mimicking the
medieval notion of the Virgin's physical ascent into Heaven,
proclaimed in Pope Pius XII's 1950 edict. What emerges is a profound
symphonic experience. In the hushed Lento, woodwind and brass suggest
an almost visible 'transformation', as if we were literally witnessing
the Virgin's 'Assumption'. The work culminates in one of those
glorious, spare Max Adagios, as if to offer a vision of a new,
'changed' future.

There are two dramatic works on offer. The first is what Max calls a
Masque - BLIND MAN'S BUFF. We all know the game: the disoriented,
blindfolded victim must touch other people and guess who they
are. Max's masque of the same name is an elaborate challenge to
identity based on the final scene of Buchner's play Leonce and
Lena. This is serious play, with shades of Pierrot Lunaire, the work
which inspired Max and many other composers of his generation. The
small band comments on the absurdist plot and its mime action with
brilliant, expressionistic clarity. Themes are touched on here that
resonate throughout Max's work; not just specifically musical,
political or religious themes, but questions of identity and parody -
Who am I? What does it mean to be original, or true? - that are
handled here with a light and deft touch.

The other, much larger work, is the opera RESURRECTION, presented here
on MaxOpus in two separate parts: PROLOGUE and ACT. This work was
first performed in 1988, but Max had been thinking about it since his
time at Princeton University in the USA in the early 1960s. For all
the controversy surrounding its long gestation and violence of
expression and message, Resurrection fits squarely within the fine
20th-century tradition of opera as parody and protest: from Elektra to
Wozzeck to Die Soldaten. Unlike these classics, however, Resurrection
is, says Max, 'above all a comic opera', and perhaps a more useful
comparison may be with The Rake's Progress and its story of Everyman
Corrupted. Certainly the abrupt transitions from pop crooning to TV-ad
superficiality to chorale cliches to expressionist nightmare should
distance listeners appropriately. Max researched the opera by
observing surgical operations, and perhaps that is an appropriate
stance for listeners too, at least until the final, horrifying
denouement.

Max's STRATHCLYDE CONCERTO NO. 4 FOR CLARINET works like the Eroica
and Mahler's Fourth - that is to say, backwards. Not that any of these
works should be listened to that way, because the challenge and the
joy is in the gradual piecing together of melodies and their
transformations, and the eventual discovery of their source. In Max's
case, this results in one of his most numinous conclusions. If that
sounds too elusive, the concerto can be fully appreciated for its
gentle exploitation of all that the clarinet does best, often
partnered by a pair of horns or by the soft whirr of a marimba.

The STRATHCLYDE CONCERTO NO. 5 FOR VIOLIN AND VIOLA is 'he most
involving and involved' of the ten Strathclyde concertos', says
Max. The concerto's only connection to Mozart, despite its
instrumentation, is the bicentenary year of its composition, 1991. A
more fruitful clue to its character is the opening Italian expression
marking, 'In the style of the 16th century' - the golden age of the
madrigal, with that genre's succinct encapsulations of love and
loss. A short fantasy from the period is the seed of the work's
melodic growth; indeed the concerto starts like a fantasy over a
ground bass, and the abrupt changes of mood and tempo at the end of
the (mostly) fast first movement have ancient precedents. The two
soloists are not pitted against each other, as they are in other
modern double concertos; they move in sympathy through the slow
movement and dashing finale with wispy figurations and muted tones,
creating a magical sense of an intense drama seen and heard from a
distance or through the light of dusk.

The TRUMPET SONATA is Max's Op. 1 and this confident Op. 1 is
essential listening; to hear that the 20-year-old Max had already
mastered a sort of melodic serialism in which cantabile trumpet lines
can coexist with the percussive irruptions more characteristic of
postwar music; to appreciate the corners and edges that would be
refined by his subsequent Italian studies; and to revel in seven
coruscating minutes of virtuoso writing for both instruments, inspired
by the prodigious talents of his friends and fellow students at the
Royal Northern College of Music, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. It is a
composer's manifesto and Genesis in three brief chapters.

A tie up with the Brass Quintet is the Thomas TALLIS: FOUR VOLUNTARIES
arranged for brass quintet Unlike many of Max's rearrangements of
early music, these are performed 'straight'. His transcription for
brass instruments preserves a solemn, ceremonial aspect while
separating the contrapuntal lines and illuminating the exquisite
clashes of harmony that are Tallis's trademark; the results seem
poised between keyboard fantasy and vocal anthem. The plainsong
fragment which forms the basis for each voluntary is stated at the
outset on trombone, the better to follow its subsequent chromatic
peregrinations.

THE BAIRNS OF BRUGH is a short and touching epitaph to Sverre Bergh, a
Norwegian impresario. It is scored for the small Fires of London
ensemble. As often in the works written for the Fires, the marimba
creates an acoustic mist, through which a viola plays a lamenting
melody. Piano and piccolo assume the same relationship, then viola and
piccolo combine like two birds, one high above the other, seeking
resolution and stepping into silence.

Lastly, Max's commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder
plot in A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING IN TIMES OF TERROR is a vivid setting
of an extraordinary speech. It was made at the trial of one of the
conspirators (not Guy Fawkes, but a Henry Garnet) by the Government's
Prosecutor, the Earl of Northumberland. More disquisition and tract
than accusation, it expounds in language and arguments of startling
colour and power the terms of the religious, intellectual and cultural
war between Catholic and Protestant that was then laying siege to
England. The body of the motet is accordingly violent in expression,
though a confessional midpoint brings a treble solo with an easy,
upward momentum that recalls Max's 2004 carol for the Chapel Royal,
'Lullay, my Child, and Weep no more'. Northumberland's quotation of
Virgil forms the coda: "There being no health in war, we all seek
peace."

With best wishes,

The MaxOpus Music team
@ http://music.maxopus.com

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