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ClassicsOnline Home » MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 7 and 8 / A Spell for Green Corn (McTier, Leveaux, Clark, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxwell Davies)
Some of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ most imposing and important music for solo instruments can be heard in his cycle of ten Strathclyde Concertos, composed for, and premièred by the soloists of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The ingeniously structured Seventh Concerto, for double bass, is both tense and haunting. The more conventionally laid out Eighth Concerto, for bassoon, is by turns playful and lyrical, and features an important rôle for timpani. A Spell for Green Corn was written to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the SCO and Maxwell Davies’ 60th birthday.
Peter Maxwell Davies (b 1934)
Strathclyde Concertos Nos 7 and 8 • A Spell for Green Corn: The MacDonald Dances
Solo instruments have long had 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 the composer was to pursue 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 8.572356], piano (1997) [8.572357], horn (1999) and a second one for the violin (2009). However, Maxwell Davies’ most imposing contribution is likely to remain his cycle of ten Strathclyde Concertos, commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which latter undertook all ten of the premières. Composed between 1987 and 1996, this series takes in six solo concertos for oboe, cello [8.573017], clarinet [8.572353], flute [8.572354], double bass and bassoon; double concertos for horn and trumpet [8.572353], and for violin and viola [8.572354]; a concerto for woodwind sextet; and is rounded off with a concerto for orchestra. As he was to do a decade later with his cycle of ten Naxos Quartets [8.505225], Davies explained that embarking on such a project enabled him to make the most of his relationship with the musicians whether individually or collectively: much in the way Haydn had written for specific players and combinations in his years at the Esterházy court.
The Seventh Strathclyde Concerto is for double bass and was premièred by Duncan McTier (to whom it is dedicated), with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the composer, in Glasgow on 24 November 1992. The orchestra—double woodwind (with doublings), two horns and strings, duly emphasizes the lower registers and so creates a suitably luminous backdrop.
The first movement opens with a terse gesture from the lower strings, out of which the soloist emerges with a ruminative theme that takes on a Sibelius-like sombreness as it unfolds. The music gradually gains in expressive impetus as the other strings are involved, until a sudden pause brings a notable change of perspective with the entry of woodwind and brass. The soloist meanwhile continues, engaging in a tense dialogue until the main theme is sounded out by full strings—after which the soloist reappears for a wide-ranging cadenza that has frequent recourse to its lower register. Towards the close this grows more animated, marking the re-entry of the woodwind for a spare and understated coda. Its closing chord is paralleled by that of the second movement, whose deliberate motion is further emphasized by the spectral pizzicatos that accompany the haunting dialogue between the soloist and lower woodwind, with strings adding a subtle harmonic ‘halo’. At length the tempo picks up appreciably as an assertive new idea is entrusted to the strings, before being taken up by the soloist with the sparsest of accompaniments. The whole orchestra emerges threateningly, but leaves the foreground to the soloist for a soulful monologue over a pedal point deep in lower strings. Over tremolo strings the soloist unfolds a theme audibly related to that from the opening, while the assertive idea briefly re-emerges on horns prior to a questioning close.
The Eighth Strathclyde Concerto—premièred by Ursula Leveaux (to whom it is dedicated), with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the composer, in Glasgow on 24 November 1993—has a more traditional sequence of movements and a wider range of expression. The orchestra has no oboes and only a contrabassoon, but also a prominent role for timpani.
The first movement begins with animated exchanges between the strings then the woodwind, before the soloist enters for a starkly plaintive soliloquy featuring terse contributions from other instruments and ominous gestures from timpani. The texture grows fuller as strings and woodwind variously alternate against the soloist’s evolving discourse, then pizzicato strings denote a gradual increase in tempo as the mood becomes more capricious and upper woodwind assume a greater prominence. Animated strings from the opening return, then pounding timpani presage an imaginatively scored section in which the soloist is partnered by individual strings and woodwind over a steady pizzicato tread. Strings now bring about a climax, but this proves short-lived and the soloist continues musingly with flutes towards a subdued close. The second movement starts with a laconic theme for the soloist over delicate pizzicato strings, which unfolds at length despite the occasional eruptive gesture on the strings. Eventually timpani break in to provoke a brief climax, after which the soloist proceeds to a calm pause. The finale opens with a searching cadenza that surveys the soloist’s full technical capabilities, before piccolo and pizzicato strings introduce a livelier passage which acquires a degree of momentum as the orchestra makes its presence felt, though even a forceful outburst from timpani cannot prevent the soloist’s final turning inward.
While not part of the Strathclyde sequence, A Spell for Green Corn is very much in its orbit. Commissioned by the fiddler Donald MacDonald (to whom it is dedicated) for the 21st anniversary of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the 60th birthday of Davies, it was first given by James Clark, the SCO and the composer, in Glasgow on 24 November 1993.
Taking its title from An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown, and prefaced by the line ‘’Let not plough be put to acre except a fiddle cross first the furrow’’, the piece commences with a plaintive melody for violin and one that reaches upwards as the orchestra almost imperceptibly enters. A folk-like lilting motion presently comes to the fore as the music grows more animated rhythmically (percussion making a subtle contribution), a brief climax being reached before upper woodwind launch a dance inflected passage which gains in impetus as it passes to the violin in the company of strings and timpani. This is presently taken up by full orchestra, the violin continuing with brass then woodwind before a slowing of the pace and a presentation of the theme that builds toward a powerful climax. This subsides on timpani and woodwind, leaving the violin—now heard offstage—to pursue its folk-like evocation accompanied by bassoon, before a resumption of the earlier energy brings an animated contribution from woodwind and brass. The whole orchestra quickly enters as the main theme is imposingly rendered, before a hushed recollection from the soloist and decisive final gesture on brass.
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