Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 1

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Maxwell Davies
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Maxwell Davies
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: BBC Philharmonic/Maxwell Davies
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572348

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Peter Maxwell Davies was 42 years old when he first ventured into symphonic writing. He described this first attempt at the genre, which was premiered in 1978 by the Philharmonia and a very young Simon Rattle, as marking ‘the possibility of the beginning of an orchestral competence’.

That may seem overly modest, though the work does have a very curious sound, its lean brass-plated angularity shot through with cold Orkney-grey gleams of glockenspiel and marimba. The composer is anxious to stress formal kinship with works by Sibelius, Boulez and Schumann, and says the final peremptory chords are deliberately misplaced harmonies, so as to leave the argument open-ended.

I can’t honestly say these things are any more evident to my ears now than they were in 1978. But it doesn’t matter, as the unfolding narrative of the piece has a compelling force on its own terms. The recording is somewhat dull and unengaging, but the energy and excitement of the performance shine through. After the strenuousness of the Symphony, the high jinks of Mavis in Las Vegas comes as welcome light relief.

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Ivan Hewett