Maxwell Davies at 75 | Classical review

Wigmore Hall, London

Peter Maxwell Davies celebrated his 75th birthday at the beginning of September, but events to mark the milestone are only now gathering momentum. Last weekend, the Southbank Centre in London presented the first ever complete cycle of his Naxos Quartets, and at the end of the month there will be a 10-day festival devoted to his music in Glasgow. Between those major undertakings came this modest tribute from the Nash Ensemble, a concert devised by the composer, interleaving three of his own scores – including the premiere of a Nash commission.

Davies selected works by Purcell, Schubert and Debussy. Two of Purcell's wonderfully compact string Fantasias opened the concert, and there was an urgent account of Schubert's C minor Quartettsatz and a suitably languorous one of Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp to begin the second half. Davies had ranged widely across his own output, too, including the rarely heard Seven in Nomine, sketched when he was studying in the US in 1963-64, which explores many of the transformational techniques that would produce his first masterpieces, the opera Taverner and the orchestral Fantasias based on it.

Davies the Orkney resident was represented by Kettletoft Inn, written in 2006 for the Northumbrian bagpipes of Kathryn Tickell, and the new work, a string sextet, also refers to Davies's Orkney home. The Last Island evokes the atmosphere of a mysterious islet off Sanday, where he lives. It's a haunting piece, full of glassy harmonics and treacherously exposed string-writing that the Nash players negotiated superbly. The music threatens to become a conventional introduction and allegro, yet consistently reins itself in so that nothing gets resolved, and the mood of unease remains.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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