Saturday, November 18, 2006

PREMIERES://Maxwell Davies (2), Knussen and others

By Alfred Hickling
From the Guardian - Monday October 23, 2006

You don't expect decent summers in Orkney. But, according to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, this year was particularly atrocious. He was sitting in his local inn one evening when the first shaft of sunlight broke through: the whole village immediately danced in celebration.
Maxwell Davies knew he had to capture the moment, and the result takes the form of an engaging mini-concerto for Northumbrian pipes. It is also the first classical piece expressly written for folk icon Kathryn Tickell, the woman single-handedly responsible for making a sensual art out of squeezing a bag of wind.
The piece, entitled Kettletoft Inn after the spot where the epiphany took place, witnesses the composer in one of his most genial moods. Tickell's miraculously fleet piping sounds thoroughly at home in the vivacious jigs and reels.
Maxwell Davies seems the last person you would associate with military band music. Yet Military March is actually the composer's record of taking part in the 2003 demonstration against the war in Iraq. It is a frightening, ferocious, disjointed thing which strides out purposefully but doesn't get very far before the march becomes a limp, with a broken-winded clarinet making pitchless, huffing noises of indignation.
The programme concludes with one of Maxwell Davies's masterpieces, A Mirror of Whitening Light, a savagely complex evocation of the sky and sea surrounding the composer's Orcadian croft. It is some of the most bracing music ever written: conductor Garry Walker whips up screaming woodwind textures from the Northern Sinfonia that cut right through you like an Atlantic gale.


First performances are not all of a feather

By Paul Driver
From TimesOnline - October 29, 2006

Of four premieres I attended in the past few days, the grandest was the least. For the first time, the Royal Opera has commissioned a work from a woman, the Trinidadian Dominique Le Gendre, and it was staged at the Linbury. In 2003, a 20-minute opus by her had been put on there as part of A Nitro at the Opera — a Sunday of “black operas”. Bird of Night was the title of that depiction of a girl visiting the Caribbean who enacts (in sleep) a fantasy of growing wings, and duly flies, but gets shot at. A kind of racial allegory was involved, for she has to “take off” her skin first. The compactness of the piece and its deft use of a pair of male narrators commanded attention, even if the music, on the whole, did not.
Expanded to a prelude and two acts, Bird of Night (the title remains, the original piece becomes the prelude) is a mishmash of mythology, magic and superstition, a triumph of local colour over anything that might seriously engage the attention. Where before Le Gendre wrote her own text, now she has called on Paul Bentley, the librettist of operas by Poul Ruders and a performer in West End musicals. He has served her ill by providing two or three times the volume of words that might have given her a chance of success in this generally doomed medium. It is a heroic struggle, I found, to fasten on to the action (admittedly, there are no surtitles), and not to find the feathery flutterings of young Apolline (Betsabee Haas) and her shamanistic godmother Nen-Nen (Andrea Baker) risible.
Worse than risible, the opera becomes exasperating — and that has largely to do with the music. Le Gendre’s idiom is tonal and it isn’t; tuneful but not quite; classical but wary of the classical; demotic but hardly letting rip. Rather like her librettist, her score is a hybrid of West End musical and bastions of higher theatre. It was skilfully realised by the Britten Sinfonia under the young Israeli Yuval Zorn, but only twice did my ears prick up: for a bass-flute and viola duet and a calypso-ish double-bass riff, both in Act II. The singing was creditable, though the tenor Richard Coxon’s diabolic Diego was strident. There was a noble attempt at a sextet in Act I. The 12-strong chorus impressively beat bamboo. Rae Smith’s set is a looming curvilinear ramp that could be recycled as the rainbow bridge in Das Rheingold. Irina Brown directs.
The other first performances were of works by contemporary masters. At Wigmore Hall, the Maggini Quartet introduced two of the 10 string quartets that Peter Maxwell Davies is writing for Naxos Records. The London premiere of the short, airy, single-movement No 8 — a Purcellian meditation on a galliard by John Dowland, dedicated to the Queen — was followed (after Haydn’s Op 71, No 3) by the world premiere of Naxos No 9. This is an altogether weightier business, indeed grave. Davies returns to the anti-Iraq war feeling encoded into Naxos No 3, where the In Nomine cantus firmus, often exploited by him, is the ironic vehicle for a “not in my name” protest. The six-movement No 9 relates his ever-deepening alarm at the world situation to his childhood memories of the Manchester blitz.
“Glissandi of falling bombs” are evoked by the string glissandi and exaggerated vibrato that featured in his 1969 orchestral portrait of that blitz, St Thomas Wake. To such lurid gesture is now added deliberate microtonal distortion of the space between notes. The expression mark at one point is nauseabondo (nauseating), and the movements 3-5 are burlesques of increasing blatancy. Yet the whole is among the most solidly persuasive of Davies’s recent structures. The dedicatee this time is Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, a Manchester personage (once lord mayor) who happens to write books on the magic squares Davies uses when composing. The Magginis played both new works superbly.
I would like more space for the UK premiere of Oliver Knussen’s 12-minute Requiem — Songs for Sue, included in a fascinating programme by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by him at the CBSO Centre, with the soprano Claire Booth. It memorialises Knussen’s wife — a wonderful spirit, a great encourager of composers — in four settings of verse texts in three languages: an Emily Dickinson cento, Machado and Auden poems, and four lines from Rilke. The music has a neo-Bergian, perhaps Falla-like lushness, yet a miniaturist precision wholly Knussenish. The internal design of this curious hybrid of song cycle and elegy is immaculate, but the result is instant seductiveness.


By George Hall
From the Guardian - Tuesday October 24, 2006

Often regarded as the most rigorous test of a composer's skill, the string quartet medium is occupying a lot of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's time these days and seems to be drawing out the best in him. Four years into the project, he's nearing completion of the series of 10 quartets commissioned by the record company Naxos. The Maggini Quartet unveiled the Ninth in their Wigmore concert, throwing in the London premiere of the Eighth to kick-start the programme.
The new piece is a vast, six-movement work of Beethovenian scale and ambition. A dramatic and imposing allegro supplies the trenchant opening of the piece, followed by a largo of equivalent proportions and cogency. Then follow three shorter movements - a fugitive scherzo, a small, elusive central slow movement and a parody military march recalling Berg's Wozzeck or even Shostakovich, rather than the 1940s popular songs fragmented elsewhere or the sounds of wartime bombing from Davies's Manchester childhood. The allegro finale acts as a summation. Well over half an hour long, the Ninth maintains a dynamic sense of unity and provides an intense, compelling experience.
So, on a smaller scale, does the more introverted Eighth Quartet, whose material is drawn from Dowland's Queen Elizabeth's Galliard, heard in its purest form near the close.
To the more internalised concerns of the Eighth, as well as to the fiercer power of the Ninth, the Magginis brought a technical sureness and commitment that did them and the music proud. They were marginally less successful with the remaining work, Haydn's Quartet in E flat, Op71 No 3, whose vivid contrasts and straightforward humour needed more of the emphatic attack they brought to the Maxwell Davies.


By Annette Morreau
From The Independent - 24 October 2006

"In the Ninth quartet, I've gone to places I've never been before, some I didn't want to go to..." The words of Peter Maxwell Davies in a pre-concert talk on his latest quartet, which was receiving its premiere at the Wigmore Hall. This is the penultimate quartet in his series of 10 commissioned by Naxos for performance and recording by the estimable Maggini Quartet.
Davies regards his quartets as a novel. As he puts it: "The same rhythmic patterns, themes and moronic designs are developed like characters throughout, also the same magic square matrices, and architectural structures carry over from one quartet to the next."
The Ninth harks back particularly to his Third, written in 2003, which was prefaced by Davies: "It is a privilege and a duty to comment on one of the greatest disasters of our time." In this Ninth quartet, the anger and despair of the Iraq war that informed the Third is revisited, only now Davies fears a catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions: atom-bombs thrown by every race that wants to get the better of the other.
The Ninth is in six movements. Two places that Davies had never visited and had never wanted to were distinctive: squashed tuning, widening and diminishing particular intervals by less than a quarter tone; and a feeling of chaos. The work is structured so that the third, fourth and fifth movements reflect the first, second and sixth, the inner three working virtually as a quartet within a quartet.
Indeed, the same characters appear - the chirpy dances, the meandering, melancholy lines, the quotation of a 16th-century theme, in this case one of John Taverner's - but there is a tension, an intensity, an anger and a deceptive calm that is both disturbed and disturbing, verging on chaos.
Davies regards his Eighth quartet (receiving its London premiere) as the "intermezzo" of the 10 quartets. It picks up from the dolefulness of the Seventh's seven slow movements but is short - the right length to be accommodated with the Seventh on a CD. Davies has dedicated this work to the Queen but takes his musical cue from the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, even if structurally the string fantasies of Purcell impinge. With stratospherically high notes for the violin and a mournful intensity, it provides no balm.

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