Enviable Glasgow, with two fine symphony orchestras and the astonishing Scottish Chamber Orchestra to satisfy its musical needs, not to mention the excellent students of the Royal Scottish Academy. These forces came together to celebrate Peter Maxwell Davies’s 75th birthday. You can find more details at the composer’s website: maxopus.com
The output is by now vast, with the 300 opus-numbered works accounting for by no means everything. Max makes no secret of his speedy production: the full-length trumpet concerto was knocked off in a week, the 27-minute Fifth Symphony turned out in a month. The symphonies have dominated the public perception of Davies for a long while. They were represented here by the Fourth, a work written for the SCO. Their performance with Oliver Knussen conducting was the highlight of the concerts I heard. The work scurries, cackles and splutters for an incessant, coruscating forty minutes. I didn’t quite get it in 1988 and nor do I now. What are the themes? Where are the markers, harmonic and melodic, that any extended work needs? And the orchestration has a peculiar sameness. Fussy scale and arpeggio figures in winds and strings, and stock brass eruptions. Anyone who wants horns not to do upward glissandi or trumpets not to erupt in scotch snap-laden flourishes will have a hard time with the symphonies.
The RSA students played the eighth of the Naxos Quartets. A tribute to their musicality and diligence. As with all Max’s concert music, the technical difficulties are cruel. Did they feel it was worth it? The composer was gracious, the audience polite. It illustrated the problem I have with the recent music, namely a lack of tension. Everything in the recent works seems to consist of length; there is a dogged on-and-onness to them.
Livelier than this was the new St. Francis Overture premiered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov who looks like he should turn eighteen next birthday. Max explained that the work eschewed the hagiography of Messiaen – he clearly dislikes that composer’s opera on the same subject - for an attempt to portray the saint’s inner world. It’s a pretty turbulent, Calvinistic place, it should be said. The orchestral sound swirled convincingly; the rasping climax was tellingly done. If one was prepared to indulge a lack of real distinction in the meodic writing, it was a fine work, warmly received. I was unable to attend the performance of the opera Tavener. It has just been released by the NMC label (NMC D 157).
Perhaps another remark by Davies brought into focus my unease with the path he has taken. He said the Overture was asking to be expanded into something bigger, perhaps another symphony. Always, with this enormously gifted musician, more: large movements merge into larger works which merge ino vast cycles of works. I miss in this expanding universe the Stravinskian or Beethovenian move towards a late laconicism, a tightening and reigning-in in the interests of marshalling force. But as an example of how to be a composer in the unmusical world he has few equals. Happy birthday Max.