Classical Reissue Reviews

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 1; Mavis in Las Vegas – BBC Philharmonic/ Peter Maxwell Davies – Naxos

A retread from the Maxwell Davies series on Collins Classics—and worth hearing.

Published on October 11, 2012

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 1; Mavis in Las Vegas – BBC Philharmonic/ Peter Maxwell Davies – Naxos

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 1; Mavis in Las Vegas – BBC Philharmonic/ Peter Maxwell Davies – Naxos 8.572348, 68:03 ****:

Maxwell Davies’s First Symphony comes from 1976, back in the heady years of Eight Songs for a Mad King. This is not mad music, make no mistake. In fact, the origins of the work stem from a George Mackay Brown poem, Black Pentecost, commissioned initially from the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1974. Maxwell Davies was never quite satisfied with this work, so redolent of the place he called his home, the Orkney Valley in the north coast of Scotland. This movement, itself springing from a soprano and guitar song called Dark Angels kept growing in scope and content, with each subsequent piece proving unsatisfactory to the composer who began to create a link among the movements after being influenced by such disparate music as the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, Schumann’s Second Symphony, and Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli. Don’t expect those sorts of sounds though; Maxwell Davies’s world is one where impressions of the moment have a direct and visceral impact, almost stream of consciousness, from what sounds like an evolving melody to a sudden and jagged halt as his gaze turns from field to ragged coast. The secret to appreciating this symphony, and indeed to most of his symphonies and larger works, is to take it as it comes, expecting neither preamble nor postlude, but enjoying the ride as it happens without looking for reference points.

Mavis is a sort of joke based on Las Vegas operators unable to understand his name when he was on tour with the BBC Philharmonic in the states. The piece is a thirteen-minute tone poem that goes out of its way to describe the garish and over-the-top cultural experience that is Las Vegas. It has more of the Maxwell Davies eclecticism that we are used to, but makes its points in an effective manner without seeming overbearing—something that his own experience in the city proved to be, if we are to believe the comments in the booklet notes.

This is a re-release of two Collins Classics issues from 1995 and 1998. Both are recorded in lively and detailed sound, the performances excellent.

—Steven Ritter




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