Maxwell Davies: Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot; Eight Songs for a Mad King; Interview – in conversation with Paul Driver

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COMPOSERS: Maxwell Davies
LABELS: Psappha
WORKS: Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot; Eight Songs for a Mad King; Interview – in conversation with Paul Driver
PERFORMER: Jane Manning, Kelvin Thomas; Psappha
Those of us old enough to remember the premiere of Eight Songs for a Mad King in 1968 will not forget the shock it carried. It was the highpoint of the flowering of British music theatre in the late 1960s, yet unlike so many once-iconic pieces that have not stood the test of time, Maxwell Davies’s score has retained all of its discomfiting power, and still ranks among his finest achievements. The portrait of the insane George III talking to his caged birds (represented by the instrumentalists) was constructed around the phenomenal vocal abilities of Roy Hart, who gave the first performances; when Davies recorded it with the Fires of London, on Unicorn Kanchana, Julius Eastman was the soloist. In those days what we now know as extended vocal techniques seemed likely to remain beyond the reach of normal, mortal singers, but a succession of brave baritones have mastered its repertoire of screams, falsetto leaps and growls. Kelvin Thomas’s performance with the instrumentalists of Psappha is masterly in many respects, but it lacks the sheer visceral energy of its predecessor. The new version, naturally, is better recorded, though the roughness in the old analogue sound adds a frisson to the sense of danger and instability driving every bar of the score. Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot is also the coupling on the Unicorn Kanchana disc. Composed in 1974 as a companion piece to Eight Songs, however, it wears less well. This depiction of an Australian woman (apparently also the model for Dickens’s Miss Havisham), who was left at the altar and took refuge in a fantasy world, reworks many of the same dramatic and musical formulas but packs much less punch. Jane Manning’s performance with Psappha certainly has nervy intensity, but again the composer’s own version with Mary Thomas (for whom it was written) has the histrionic edge. Andrew Clements