Maxwell Davies: Suites From The Boyfriend / Maxwell Davies, Cleobury, Aquarius
MAXWELL DAVIES The Boyfriend: Suite. 1 The Devils: Suite. 1 Seven in Nomine. 1 The Yellow Cake Revue: Excerpts 2 • 1 Nicholas Cleobury, cond; 1 Aquarius; 2 Peter Maxwell Davies (pn) • NAXOS 8.572408 (71:02)
After listening to much of Maxwell Davies’s “regular” music, the suite from The Boyfriend, written for the Ken Russell movie, certainly sounds a bit strange to say the least, being a take-off on 1920s “Jazz Age” music. The interesting thing about it is that both the music and its orchestration are not only more subtle but better both as music and scoring than a great deal of real “Jazz Age” pop, particularly the majority of Paul Whiteman’s output. It has a wonderful charm about it, and as a suite it holds together extremely well, something you might not at all expect from movie music specifically crafted to tie into a certain period. In a way, it almost sounds like a suite of early Gershwin tunes arranged by a master. Or, to put it another way, the music is “bound” organically, despite its allusions to 1920s songs, in a way that even some modern music is not properly tied together. Moreover, the chamber orchestra Aquarius is having an absolute ball with this music, playing it with a verve and a kick one might never expect from a British chamber orchestra (a dance band, yes, but a chamber orchestra, not necessarily). I was absolutely enchanted from first note to last with the Boyfriend suite, though I didn’t expect to be. Bravo!
The suite from The Devils, a score for a film based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, is quite the opposite: dark, moody, often ominous-sounding music. An uncredited soprano sings very well in a portion of the Sanctus during the second piece, “Sister Jeanne’s Vision,” and here we encounter the type of “madness” music that Maxwell Davies reworked so effectively in his song cycle, Eight Songs for a Mad King (written around the same time). One certainly couldn’t imagine a sharper contrast in styles than between these two film scores—except for, believe it or not, a bit of 1920s-style music in the midst of track 10, “Exorcism.” The soprano returns, after which we inexplicably get another short bit of 1920s dance music. (Apparently, those devils of Loudon liked to do the Charleston.)
Seven in Nomine, dating from 1965, quotes the tune of John Taverner’s Gloria Tibi Trinitas in four of the seven pieces, only one of which actually bears Taverner’s title. Written for the unusual combination of a wind quintet, string quartet, and harp, it reveals yet another side of the composer, the ability to paraphrase earlier music while taking it to a new level. I found it interesting, considering that this is technically a modern work, that the solo strings of Aquarius play with straight tone. You just can’t break the British of that nasty habit. Yet the music itself is evocative, atmospheric, and very beautifully scored, with Maxwell Davies’s unusual modern harmonies creeping in such that they almost seem to have been part of the original piece, so organic do they sound. Since the music maintains a soft volume level and generally slow tempos (one notable exception being the low-volume but cheerful outburst of winds on track 16), it also generates a feeling of calm and well-being.
A similar calm, albeit more syncopated in places, emerges from his two piano solos from The Yellow Cake Revue. This was Maxwell Davies’s contribution to a campaign against mining uranium discovered on the Orkney Islands, where he lives. Both pieces here, the slightly jaunty “Yesnaby Ground” and the reflective “Farewell to Stromness,” are built around a repeating chords pattern in the left hand with undulating melodies in the right. The latter piece almost sounds like Minimalism, but is much more attractive than any American Minimalist piece I’ve yet heard.
All in all, a good if unusual album in Naxos’s Maxwell Davies collection, and one that you will probably want if you are a fan of this composer.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Catalog Number: 8572408
Composer: Peter Maxwell Davies
Conductor: Nicholas Cleobury
Performer: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies