Though it's heard and seen much less often than his other great music-theatre work of the late 1960s, Eight Songs for a Mad King, Vesalii Icones is one of Peter Maxwell Davies's supreme achievements. An extraordinarily allusive, multilayered fusion of dance and music, its dramatic shape superimposes the 14 stations of the cross on a series of 16th-century anatomical drawings by Vesalius, with a dancer and a solo cellist as the protagonists. Live, the work packs a terrific dramatic punch, which came across vividly in the only previous recording, by the Fires of London and conducted by the composer. That version is only available as a download, making this new Italian-sourced disc all the more valuable. Unfortunately, the visceral power in the instrumental writing, with its acerbic expressionism and ferocious parodies, is neutered here, not only by the rather distant recording but also by a performance that, however well played, is just too strait-laced. The wildness of Vesalii Icones is suffocated by gentility, and the inclusion of the rather pallid cello-and-ensemble piece Linguae Ignis from 2002, recorded for the first time, is no compensation.
Maxwell Davies: Vesalii Icones; Linguae Ignis, etc – review