SCO & Sean Shibe - Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise - MusicWeb International

The Grim Reaper has been disturbingly busy among celebrities in 2016 but, in the world of classical music, few will be more dearly missed than Peter Maxwell Davies (known as Max to one and all). The composer whose early career placed him firmly at the forefront of the British avant garde spent the second half of his life in the tranquil surroundings of the Orkney Islands. He was always grateful to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for being the first ensemble to give him a residency, so it is appropriate that it should be the SCO who issue this collection of his work, recorded before his death but released after it, which almost takes on the status of a memorial. Indeed, the orchestra's outgoing Chief Executive pens a special memory piece in the booklet note.

The last years of Max's life were overshadowed by his diagnosis of (and recovery from) leukaemia, and Ebb of Winter, like his tenth symphony, is written as a way of dealing with the disease's impact on him. As its name suggests, however, Ebb of Winter is about his emerging from the depths of his illness and into recovery, something he saw mirrored in the changing season around him on Orkney, and so the piece reflects both his improving health and the revival of the natural world. Like much on this disc, it's harmonically adventurous but not at all scary melodically. The hard-edged, frosty shimmerings of the opening are played with austere precision, then the piece later becomes warmer through its string theme. The ending is fonder but, if it's not overflowing with positivity, then perhaps that's an accurate reflection of life. The glockenspiel of the final bars is like melting icicles.

Last Door of Light is a meditation on climate change and its threat to the planet. It starts sparely but builds elements of unrest. That threat is mostly expressed as though from a distance, however, with dark, contrasting textures rather than nerve-jangling danger. The timpani lead the explosive climax, just when you think it's safe, and the ending is strangely inconclusive.

The disc ends with Max's most popular orchestral work, and the title track of this disc. Orkney Wedding was written both to depict and to commemorate a wedding he attended, and it's a straightforwardly programmatic piece with bad weather, a bridal procession and traditional dances that become ever more tipsy as the piece progresses, something the orchestra evidently enjoys enormously. The glorious sunrise that greets the guests as they leave the wedding is played on the bagpipes, sonically and spatially (the piper enters from the back of the hall then processes to the stage at the front) captured very well indeed.

Hill Runes for solo guitar is inspired by the elusive poetry of George Mackay Brown, the writer who was, in part, responsible for inspiring Max's move to Orkney, and who, with him, was one of the driving forces in setting up the St Magnus Festival in 1977. The texture is prickly but clear, and the densely focused writing comes through very well both in the well-judged recording and in Sean Shibe's precise playing. He also plays Timothy Walker's lovely arrangement of Max's most popular piece, the beautiful, haunting Farewell to Stromness, here sounding wistful and elegiac.

The programme is well chosen, excellently played and beautifully recorded, making it about the most accessible introduction to Max's music that I can think of.    

MusicWeb International
31 October 2016