Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Cross Lane Fair. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, BBC Philharmonic. Naxos 8.572350.

You know Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Well, if you don’t, you should. As of this writing, the prolific English composer and conductor (b. 1934) is the Master of the Queen’s Music, a title equivalent to the Poet Laureate of the country or the Archbishop of Tunes or something. To be fair, though, I rather suspect the English program his music more than we do in the U.S., so if you’re not quite sure about him or what he’s written, you have cause. Anyway, he’s written nine symphonies so far, and this third one is among the best. It’s good to have the composer’s own recording of it back in circulation from Naxos.

The Symphony No. 3 is big work in four slightly unconventional movements. It begins and ends rather quietly, with sometimes violent turns in between as it conjures up visions of seascapes, rock cliffs, and seabirds. Maxwell Davies suggests that the piece resembles a spiralling mollusk shell. He wrote the music in 1984 “at home in a tiny isolated cottage on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland, on a clifftop overlooking the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.” To me, the music resembles some things by fellow Englishman Arnold Bax, who also wrote tone poems of nature and the sea, things like Tintagel, Northern Ballad No. 1, and November Woods. Then, too, there is always the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and his various descriptive, romantic tone poems and symphonies to consider as comparisons.

The composer himself leads the BBC Philharmonic, so we have to presume the interpretation is authoritative. Certainly, the music bespeaks of a rugged individuality of spirit, along with a kind of Debussy La Mer sensibility. Interestingly, Maxwell Davies also inserts a medieval Roman Church chant into the piece; I’m not sure exactly why except perhaps because of some religious connotations equating our lives with the wrath of God and Nature and because the chant variations give the work a pleasing texture.

After the long opening movement, there follow a pair of Scherzos, the second of which somewhat distorts the first. There is a vaguely jazz-inflected tone to these movements, at least part of which describes a flock of nesting seabirds spiraling upwards. The third-movement Allegro vivace introduces us to the final section, a brooding Adagio, even longer than the other sections, that tends to repeat some of the effects of the first movement.

There are some wonderfully evocative feelings and moods expressed in the symphony, although at nearly an hour, it probably overextends its welcome by a good fifteen minutes or more. This was only my second time hearing it, and I couldn’t help thinking again that it would have maybe been better as a shorter tone poem. Yet surely this is a fascinating piece of music, and it’s good to hear so relatively recent a work that hearkens back to the days of actual melody and harmony instead of mere noise.

The brief, quarter-hour accompanying work is a lighter piece called Cross Lane Fair. From 1994 it’s a genuine tone poem that evokes the sights and sounds of a fair the composer recalls from his childhood. Using pipes and bodhran (an Irish frame drum) as soloists with the orchestra, it’s quite a lot of fun.

The sound comes to us originally courtesy of Collins Classics, who recorded it in 1993-94 at BBC North Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK, and the folks at Naxos re-released it in 2012 along with several other Maxwell Davies discs. It’s among the best-sounding albums I’ve heard from the Naxos group, with a wide stereo spread, a good depth of field, a realistic tonal balance, and a fairly clear midrange.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa