Maxwell Davies: The Beltane Fire; Caroline Mathilde – Suite from Act II

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Maxwell Davies
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: The Beltane Fire; Caroline Mathilde – Suite from Act II
PERFORMER: BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
CATALOGUE NO: 14642 DDD
Peter Maxwell Davies’s choreographic poem The Beltane Fire appears on disc less than a year after its premiere in Boston last April. It’s coupled with a second selection from Davies’s full-length 1991 ballet; the suite from the first act of Caroline Mathilde was released on Collins four years ago. Neither score represents Davies’s recent music at its very best – the purpose of the two scores probably precludes the kind of brooding, tough-sinewed rigour that characterises, say, his Fifth Symphony – but once again his immense fluency and instinctively vivid aural imagination give much of the music an attractive, ever eventful surface.

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Alongside Caroline Mathilde, whose garish unevenness seems only to be underlined by this sequence of bleeding chunks, The Beltane Fire emerges as by far the stronger work. It began life as a ballet commission, but when the composer and the proposed choreographer fell out, Davies refashioned the piece for the concert hall, preserving the explicit scenario – a dark Orcadian fable about the clash between Christian puritanism and the islands’ pagan prehistory – and the carefully integrated flecks of local colour. There are dreamy interludes for folk fiddle and Celtic harp, and a sequence of Orkney dance tunes all woven into a texture that has an uneasy doomy feel; the ending, bleak and tragic, is wonderfully managed by the BBC Philharmonic under the composer.