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ClassicsOnline Home » MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Linguae Ignis / Vesalii icones / Fantasia on a Ground and 2 Pavans (V. Ceccanti, Contempoartensemble, M. Ceccanti)
Music for mixed ensembles has been a feature of the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies from the very beginning, as has the use of earlier musical styles ranging from a few years before to centuries earlier. Linguae Ignis, premièred in 2002 by the forces that perform it on this disc, is a beautiful, elegiac work. Maxwell Davies entwines two Pentecostal Plainchants, gradually generating rich dance patterns, to which the solo cello responds with eloquent reserve. Dating from much earlier, Vesalii Icones, which also has a prominent rôle for solo cello, is a set of fourteen dances, based on illustrations by Vesalius, that play out the Stations of the Cross in music of profound ritualistic expression. By contrast the Fantasia and Two Pavans provide a sardonic and provocative gloss on Purcell.
By Jessica Duchen
Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Linguae Ignis • Vesalii Icones • Fantasia on a Ground and Two Pavans
Music for mixed ensembles has been a feature of the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies from the very beginning, as has the use of earlier musical styles ranging from a few years before to centuries earlier. The works on this disc may be taken as complementary in the demonstration of these contrasting approaches.
The instrumental motet Linguae Ignis (Tongues of Fire) for cello and fourteen instruments was commissioned by the Contempoart Ensemble to mark its tenth anniversary and first performed, with Vittorio Ceccanti as cellist and Mauro Ceccanti as conductor, on 20 May 2002 at the Teatro Goldoni, Florence, as part of that year’s Maggio Musicale Festival. The piece evolves through the transformation between two plainsongs. Thus the cello’s unaccompanied statement of the plainsong Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes is gradually though discreetly joined by the ensemble, before insistent brass interjections ruffle the tranquil mood. A dynamic tutti passage suddenly erupts, capped by the cavorting of trumpet, after which the soloist continues against an animated backdrop with marimba and piano to the fore. The dialogue becomes more energetic before reaching a calmer yet still ominous expression from which the soloist unfolds the plainsong Veni Creator Spiritus while, in the process, returning the music to its initial serenity as it heads upwards to the top of its compass.
The year 1969 proved a crucial one for Maxwell Davies in that work on his ambitious opera Taverner was coming to a head, while the expressionist elements brought to the fore in his music with the large-scale setting of Georg Trakl, Revelation and Fall (1966), similarly reached their culmination. Along with the capricious ‘foxtrot for orchestra’ that is St Thomas Wake and the magisterial ‘motet for orchestra’ that is Worldes Bliss, 1969 also gave rise to two of the composer’s most significant music-theatre pieces: Eight Songs for a Mad King, where a singer-actor plays out the decline into madness of George III against a backdrop of songs and airs from the later eighteenth century; and Vesalii Icones, its balletic counterpart, in which cello and ensemble are joined by a solo dancer who plays out the Stations of the Cross according to a parallel series of anatomical poses. This latter piece was first heard at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 December 1969, in a performance by dancer William Louther, cellist Jennifer Ward Clark and the Pierrot Players directed by the composer.
Impetus for Vesalii Icones came from a facsimile edition of De humani corporis fabrica (1543), a treatise by the Belgian physician Andreas van Wesel (Vesalius), who made dissection and observation of the human body a matter for learned study as well as a popular ‘spectator sport’. Maxwell Davies takes fourteen of these anatomical drawings and superimposes them on the Stations of the Cross in a piece which, as with other of the composer’s works from this period, brings elements of medieval plainsong, early twentieth-century popular music and his own idiom into close and often inextricable accord. The ensemble is rich in percussion (though requiring only one player), along with instruments that extend its range of timbre and texture in various imaginative ways. These come to the fore with the climactic ‘resurrection’, in which the appearance and curse bestowed by the Antichrist might be seen, according to the composer, as sacrilegious—‘but the point I am trying to make is a moral one: it is a matter of distinguishing the false from the real, that one should not be taken in by appearances’.
The fourteen sections, played without pause, can be distinguished by the expressive contrast between them, while use of sanctus bells as a means of transition offers a ritualistic quality pertinent to the nature of the drama.
I. The Agony in the Garden: Solo cello unfolds a lengthy melodic line to which the ensemble contributes a restrained yet active accompaniment, upper woodwind and unpitched percussion to the fore. Bells lead into
II. The Betrayal of Judas: Here the dialogue between cello and ensemble has become freer and also more animated, now with tuned percussion adding some lively counterpoints to the solo writing. Bells lead into
III. Christ and Pilate: In which the sound of piano clusters as well as resonating percussion create an ominous backdrop for the soloist, who latterly has a cadenza-like passage with capricious pizzicati. Bells lead into
IV. The Flagellation: A lively dancing motion is maintained by the soloist, heard against a repetitive pattern of discords on piano and lively interjections from the percussion which are abruptly curtailed. Bells lead into
V. Christ Condemned to Death: After a loud drumstroke the soloist is overwhelmed by the ensemble, notably some shrill interjections from the woodwind and declamatory gestures from the percussion. Bells lead into
VI. The Mocking of Christ: An equable dialogue is drowned out by a chorale-like idea given sententiously on the piano, and which at length mutates into a foxtrot that draws even the soloist into its orbit. Bells lead into
VII. Christ Receives the Cross: An essentially fractured set of exchanges between soloist and ensemble, which have more than a hint of parody as various instruments emerge fleetingly into prominence. Bells lead into
VIII. St Veronica Wipes His Face: An expansive gesture from soloist and piano falls away to leave a gradually coalescing chorale texture, its solemnity undercut by the sound of typewriter and musical box. Bells lead into
IX. Christ Prepared for Death: A brief though incisive interplay between soloist and an ensemble with upper woodwind much to the fore, in what is essentially a transition. Combined with piano chords, bells lead into
X. Christ Nailed to the Cross: Here the sound of the action in question is conspicuous by its absence, with soloist and ensemble rather combining in a series of highly affected glissando gestures. Bells lead into
XI. The Death of Christ: The soloist unfolds an often discursive yet always expressive threnody, replete with ironic asides from piano and woodwind which are attacked by a sudden percussive onslaught. Bells lead into
XII. The Descent from the Cross: The still-point of the entire work, in which the soloist muses introspectively against an austere backdrop of fragmented chordal gestures and quietly insistent percussion. Bells lead into
XIII. The Entombment of Christ: Proceeding from the above, the soloist underpinned by the sparest of woodwind chords. From here the intensity builds inexorably in a crescendo of percussion, capped by bells that lead into
XIV. The Resurrection - Antichrist: The heretical ‘double’ enters to a louche foxtrot, taking in the ensemble as it heads to a shuddering climax. Bells and pizzicato gestures from the soloist are left resounding into silence.
In contrast to the above, the Purcell realisation Fantasia on a Ground and Two Pavans, written in 1968 and first performed on 13 January the following year at London’s Broadcasting House by the Pierrot Players, directed by the composer, is in essence music for entertainment, albeit of a distinctly provocative nature. Thus while the originals of all three pieces are found in Volume 30 of The Works of Henry Purcell, as edited by the Purcell Society (and published by Novello), the intrinsic nature of Maxwell Davies’s realisation—not to mention possibilities for their ‘scenic presentation’ during performance—is unashamedly inauthentic in terms of its stylistic purity.
The fantasia (subtitled Three Parts on a Ground) remains faithful to the structure of Purcell’s original, but the use of harmonic displacement by an ensemble with piccolo and high clarinet to the fore gives the music a sardonic astringency such as could only be the product of a much later period. As to the two pavans, the first plays fast and loose with the underlying rhythm so as to give a ‘foxtrot’ gait in keeping with other of Davies’s works from the period, as does the second, which proceeds from a peremptory blast on railway whistle and evokes an old-style gramophone record in its erratic speed and final ceasing to the sound of ‘run out’ grooves.
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