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ClassicsOnline Home » MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (R. Cook, Franks, Morrison, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxwell Davies)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Strathclyde Concertos, all premièred by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, are among his most significant contributions to the concerto genre. Concerto No 3 for Horn and Trumpet marks a turning point in the cycle of ten concertos by employing multiple soloists, and stands in the lineage of works by Haydn, Mozart and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Concerto No 4 explores the clarinet’s lyrical Mozartian heritage, alongside subtle percussive effects and agile virtuosity.
BBC Music Magazine
By David Denton
Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Strathclyde Concertos Nos 3 and 4
Solo instruments have enjoyed a significant place in Peter Maxwell Davies’ output ever since the concise yet demanding Trumpet Sonata (1955) that was his first published work. The concerto as a genre has been a later preoccupation, but one that the composer pursued intensively following the successful launch of what became his First Violin Concerto (1985). Since then there have been solo concertos for the trumpet (1987), piccolo (1996) [both on Naxos 8.572363], piano (1997) [8.572357], horn (1999) and a second one for the violin (2009). However, Davies’ most imposing contribution is likely to remain his cycle of 10 Strathclyde Concertos, commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which latter undertook all of the premières. Composed between 1987 and 1996, this extensive series takes in six solo concertos for oboe, cello [8.573017], clarinet, flute, double bass and bassoon; two double concertos for horn and trumpet, and for violin and viola; a concerto for woodwind sextet; and concludes with a concerto for orchestra. As he also was to do a decade later with his cycle of 10 Naxos Quartets [8.505225], Davies explained at the time that embarking on such a project enabled him to make the most of his on-going relationship with the musicians both individually and collectively: much in the way that Haydn wrote for specific players, and combinations thereof, during his years at the Esterházy court.
The Third Strathclyde Concerto was written in 1989, and first performed in Glasgow’s City Halls on 19 January 1990 by the horn player Robert Cook and trumpeter Peter Franks (to both of whom the work is dedicated), with the composer conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Although preceded in this series by concertos for oboe and cello, the present work is more influenced by Davies’ Fourth Symphony [8.572351] (also written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra), with its frequently intricate writing for groups of wind instruments, while the influence of the Sinfonia Concertantes for wind by Haydn and Mozart is also a background presence. As with the first two concertos in the series, the instrumentation is for a nominally Classical orchestra of double woodwind, timpani and strings; though the former is expanded in terms of its lower compass through the inclusion of alto flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon—thereby affording the orchestral textures a richness and intricacy such as places the solo instruments in pointed and increasingly stark relief.
The first movement opens with a brusque pizzicato chord, followed up by woodwind and strings before the trumpet and horn make forceful entries, then engage in a dialogue of simmering intensity against often dense woodwind harmonies. A brief climax is cut short, while strings and woodwind continue in a more subdued manner prior to the soloists’ stealthy re-emergence. They are heard briefly over timpani, then stride forward incisively before being waylaid by upper strings and flutes—which instruments provide a gradually accelerating transition into the second movement. This initially unfolds at an animated pace with the soloists trading excited exchanges while woodwind pursue a constantly changing melodic line which duly passes to strings—the horn presently appearing over pizzicato strings and lower woodwind, with the trumpet engaging in a more heated dialogue with strings and timpani. Spectral upper strings maintain the momentum, before the soloists (horn initially muted) take the music onwards to a forceful culmination which is summarily cut short by timpani.
The third movement is a cadenza in which the soloists unfold a series of intensifying exchanges into which strings then woodwind are gradually absorbed. Solo flute then has a musing transition into the fourth movement, its melodic outline taken up by strings with solo violin presently coming to the fore. The horn’s entry brings a marked intensifying of mood, continued by that of the trumpet as the music takes on the guise of a measured processional with tremolo string writing much in evidence. A tense culmination is reached over pounding timpani, leaving the trumpet alone over barely audible lower strings, the horn interjecting with a continuation of the previous climax again silenced by the trumpet’s rejoinder. Speculative woodwind chords now lead into the finale, begun by gently pulsating timpani to which the soloists respond incisively over strings then continue after a piquant interlude for woodwind. The music heads towards a decisive climax fronted by the soloists, their interjections continuing against ruminative woodwind prior to the crescendoing final chord.
The Fourth Strathclyde Concerto was written in 1990 and first performed in Glasgow’s City Halls on 21 November of that year by clarinettist Lewis Morrison (to whom the work is dedicated), with the composer once again conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In contrast to its predecessor, whose single movement falls into five continuous sections, the present work is divided into two sections (I–II and III–V). By the same token whereby the first of these works is indebted to Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in matters of technique if not also character, the present work looks to that composer’s Clarinet Concerto (of which the dedicatee has himself been a notable exponent). The instrumentation is again for nominally Classical forces, though here the woodwind section comprises piccolo and contrabassoon but just bass clarinet in lieu of the expected clarinets, while a single percussionist also has subtle recourse to marimba, crotales and a large Japanese temple gong in addition to timpani; thereby giving the orchestral sound greater variety and luminescence.
The first movement is a slow and introspective introduction for lower strings, from which the soloist appears with sombre chords and to which the lively opening of the second movement comes in greatest contrast. Its initially lively dialogue is countered by robustly rhythmic music for the strings, the soloist then continuing on its capricious course in the company of agitated strings and animated woodwind as the motivic ideas heard thus far are subjected to extensive transformation. The soloist responds with a more ingratiating version of the strings’ earlier music, before the music quickly re-gathers its initial energies as previous ideas are fleetingly recalled on the way to a lively though by no means decisive culmination.
Without pause, the third movement—an expansive Adagio and much the longest of the work—begins. Its initially restive atmosphere is gradually opened out as the soloist assumes the foreground with a ruminative soliloquy that is given focus by the often dense orchestral backing. Towards the mid-point this dies down as the soloist is accompanied by plaintive woodwind phrases as well as a capering motion from marimba, the former’s elegiac poise latterly underpinned by strings as it reaches a plangent culmination that gradually dies down prior to a sudden further outburst that brings with it some of the work’s most virtuosic writing—woodwind and strings helping to maintain the intensity through to a sudden close.
The fourth movement now follows as an extended cadenza, over hushed string harmonies with some occasional pizzicato chords, that nevertheless gives full vent to the soloist’s range of expression. This combination of rapidly changing activity over an essentially static backdrop eventually winds down towards a pensive pause, whereon the brief finale—designated as a coda—emerges to take the work back to its initial inwardness. Notable here is the soloist’s rendering of a Gaelic folk-song, continuing as the textures eddy almost imperceptibly while upper strings rise upwards to a final cadence that ends the work as if a benediction on its earlier striving—so making for a conclusion of unexpected though undeniable repose.
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