Classical CD Reviews

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 3; Cross Lane Fair – BBC Philharmonic Orch. /Peter Maxwell Davies – Naxos

Important recordings of these idiomatic Davies masterpieces.

Published on October 19, 2012

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 3; Cross Lane Fair – BBC Philharmonic Orch. /Peter Maxwell Davies – Naxos

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 3; Cross Lane Fair – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies – Naxos 8.572350, 72:40 ****:

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has been an important figure – maybe the most important – in post second world war English music for several decades. His music has influenced many of his younger counterparts and has played a pivotal role in keeping Great Britain still squarely in the mix of contemporary European music.

His music has always been highly creative; even bold and, occasionally, controversial. However, for every seemingly “wild” and outrageous work (such as his early Eight Songs for a Mad King), he has written many more works that pay homage to the seascapes, landscapes and cultural lineage of his country.

These two pieces illustrate Davies’ bold and picturesque vision perfectly. The Symphony No. 3 was written in 1984 and the composer states that his vision for the work was “abstract and …involved with problems of…musical architecture.” There are, indeed, complex harmonic and structural issues at work in this big-scale work. The composer cites influences of church architecture throughout, in particular the nave in cathedrals by Brunelleschi.  Additionally there are ecclesiastical references within the sound of the symphony that influence its tone; for example, a plainsong quote within the first movement.

However, this work can also be heard as a paean of sorts to the English seacoast, with its sharp, dangerous cliffs and its foreboding quality. There are moments in the final adagio that resolve musical issues from the first movement; that are inspired by the sounds of seabirds and waves lapping the cliffs. This is a dense, complex, structurally unique and brilliant work. I enjoy all of Sir Peter’s symphonies but this one is one of my favorites.

The orchestral suite Cross Lane Fair was composed in 1994 and is a very overt and somewhat sentimental look at the sights and sounds from an actual fairground the composer used to frequent with his parents as a child. This is thought of as one of the composer’s “lighter” works. Davies has a coy sense of humor that emerges in some works, such as Mavis in Las Vegas, but this work is not a “humorous” look at the county fair but, rather, a snapshot similar in its purpose to some of Charles Ives. It is interesting and a bit entertaining that the North Umbrian pipes and a traditional Celtic drum, the bodhran, are included. The pipes, in fact, function like an ambient timbre in the midst of this series of sonic images (that include trains, sideshows and jugglers). The pipes close this very picturesque work in an ephemeral quiet way. This recording of Cross Lane Fair was originally issued by Collins Classics in 1995.

The more I have heard of Maxwell Davies’ music over the years, the more I respect and admire it. He is a truly important composer in the last half of the twentieth century and beyond and his influence, especially in the United Kingdom, will be felt for years to come. In fact, these pieces – this particular recording, conducted but the composer – are an excellent introduction to his music for the uninitiated. These are “modern” works with a very dramatic and accessible sensitivity that most listeners will find quite attractive. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs




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