SCO & Sean Shibe - Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise - Herald Scotland

IT'S a little over six months since the death of composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Don't worry, this is not an in memoriam column but suddenly Max, as he was universally known, is bang up-to-the-minute topical, for a number of reasons. A new CD recording featuring music by Max hit the streets yesterday. It's on the Linn Records label, is entitled An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, takes its name from Max's most popular composition, written for John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra, and focuses on some of Max's greatest, most overtly popular pieces, as well as one of his most recent "classical" pieces, written for the 40th birthday of his beloved Scottish Chamber Orchestra. 

The young British conductor Ben Gernon is at the helm. The CD also features a less-played orchestral piece, premonitory of Orkney Wedding, which was to become universally-acclaimed and, for Everyman, the most-frequently performed of all of Max's pieces. The disc also stars (and I do mean "stars") the brilliant young Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe, and I'll get to all that in a minute.

First things first. Linn Records presents the new disc as a "tribute" to Peter Maxwell Davies. Of course it is. But when it was recorded last year, in the Usher Hall, Max, though he had been desperately ill, was very much alive. Indeed, he was scheduled to have a prominent presence in the SCO concerts this season. A concert on December 2 in Glasgow would have celebrated his SCO connection with a new commission, an Accordion Concerto featuring Owen Murray as soloist with the SCO. So there is absolutely no suggestion, before tongues start wagging, of opportunism on the part of the SCO, or indeed of Linn Records. This CD, in whatever circumstances, was always going to happen, and, as you can see from the photographs illustrating the booklet in the liner notes, Max was very much present at the recording sessions in Edinburgh.

His death in March did present the SCO with a problem: what to do about that concert at the start of December. The Accordion Concerto was not written (I don't know if Max had started it) but the orchestra has come up with a fine solution. The Celebration of Scotland's Musical Hero will become a tribute, whatever they call it on the night. The unwritten concerto will be replaced by another Max concerto, the second of his 10 Strathclyde Concertos, written for soloists in the SCO. It is for cello and orchestra, was unveiled in 1989, and will be played in December by its original soloist, cellist Will Conway, at the time principal cellist with the SCO. It's a tough-ish piece, though very lyrical and soulful, with the cellist playing pretty much non-stop, and the orchestra used as a kind of extended chamber group. Will Conway was soon to leave the SCO and follow his own star, working closely with conductor Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and, in 1990, forming his own group, the Hebrides Ensemble, to this day an exemplar of originality and excellence on Scotland's chamber music scene. The rest of the SCO programme on December 2 in the City Hall remains the same, culminating in the riotous Orkney Wedding.

So back to the new disc: and we must say a word about Sean Shibe, the still-young Scottish guitarist. It's not long, in fact, since Sean made an appearance in this slot, when he dominated a cover disc on the BBC Music magazine, in which he demonstrated his skill and artistry in a range of guitar concertos, solo pieces and arrangements. Now here he is again, with yet another notch in his bow (or should that be ‘fret on his fingerboard' with the most beautiful, resonant and soulful performance of Max's Farewell to Stromness, probably the Max piece that is everybody's favourite - which was played by a local fiddler at the composer's funeral.

Shibe also gives an intense and deadly-accurate performance of Max's Hill Runes, free of the scratches and scrapes that blemish so much guitar playing. The SCO plays Max's last composition for the orchestra, Ebb of Winter - think "slippery under foot" if you find Max's idiom too tough - and Last Door of Light, where you will hear the seed elements of the music that was to blossom in his wonderfully-inebriated Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. 

25 September 2016