Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 1

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COMPOSERS: Maxwell Davies
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
For some, the appearance of his First Symphony was the moment when Maxwell Davies’s music attained its full potential and transformed him into a composer of enduring stature. For others, it was the moment when the rot set in, and started a trend of diminishing ambition in his works that has continued, with occasional, brilliant exceptions like last year’s Fifth Symphony, until the present day.


But coming back to the First, almost twenty years after Simon Rattle conducted the first performance, is a fascinating and revealing experience; it is, whichever way one views his subsequent progress, a finely made, utterly coherent work. There’s no doubt that it builds constructively upon the music Davies had written before, especially the highly coloured instrumental writing of his Orkney period in the early 1970s, but is shaped with an awareness of the symphonic mainstream, and of Sibelius in particular, that his previously massive orchestral pieces like Worldes Blis of 1969 had always avoided. The plan is almost a traditional fast-scherzo-slow-fast one, though the Scherzo begins as a Lento. The pacing of all four movements is exemplary, although Davies’s ‘sawtooth’ way of building tension – a series of small-scale tightenings of the screw, each followed by a collapse and a fresh start – is almost overdone. But the way in which the orchestra is used, with Davies finding his personal equivalents of symphonic figuration, is fresh and pertinent, and the moments of transcendence, when the Orkney background emerges most clearly, are hauntingly effective. Rattle’s Decca recording never made it onto CD and this one, maintaining the high standards of Collins’s entire Davies series, is admirably clear, always eloquent and superbly convincing. Andrew Clements