Maxwell Davies: Black Pentecost; Stone Litany

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Maxwell Davies
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Black Pentecost; Stone Litany
PERFORMER: Della Jones (mezzo-soprano), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572359 (1993)

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Maxwell Davies has lived for many years in the Orkney Islands, and both works recorded here draw on these northern surroundings – one much more convincingly than the other. Black Pentecost sets prose extracts from George Mackay Brown’s novel Greenvoe, describing how the fictional island of Hellya becomes the site of a huge underground military installation, resulting in the destruction of the local community. (The book turned out to be prophetic of the actual prospect of uranium mining in Orkney, thwarted by a local campaign in which Davies was a prominent figure.) However strong the emotional impulse behind the work’s creation, the musical result is prosaic indeed: the extended orchestral introduction seems to relate only vaguely to the following narrative sections, and these are set for the two solo voices in a strangely generalised manner (apart from the usual Davies device of bad-guy falsetto shrieking to portray the Controller).

Compared to this underpowered and overlong creation, Stone Litany has the impact of a concentrated masterwork. Its setting of runic texts in the prehistoric stone chamber of Maeshowe offers an ultra-virtuoso vocal challenge to which Della Jones rises in impressive style; and the dark-toned orchestral score that unfolds in parallel is a powerful exploration of musical atmospherics, all channelled through a superbly tight-reined formal design. Davies conducts performances of state-of-the-art vividness, although surprisingly some small orchestral mistakes in Stone Litany remain uncorrected.

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Malcolm Hayes