CLASSICAL MUSIC / At 60, the real Maxwell Davies

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The Independent Culture
GREAT sy mphonists, you might argue, died out with the concept of the great symphony. Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich played the final hand; and after them, symphonic thinking atrophied into an undertaker's art - the province of composers who embalmed the past, or who took a loose view of nomenclature and generated 'symphonies' that everybody knew were nothing of the sort.

But in Britain at least, an undercurrent of the real thing has survived in figures like Tippett and Malcolm Arnold; and Britain seems to possess the world's most prominent living symphonist in Peter Maxwell Davies. This is curious because so little in his earlier work would have commended him as anything of the sort. There were a couple of heavyweight orchestral scores that aspired to symphonic status - the 2nd Taverner Fantasia and Worldes Blis - but otherwise his output tended towards chamber-scale ensembles, and a mission to epate les bourgeois.

Then, in his early forties, things changed. The bourgeois were still around, and not to be accommodated: Davies remains a composer of fierce social and moral convictions. But he became increasingly preoccupied with the 'purer' technical processes of writing in the abstract; and the result, in 1976, was a symphony of large proportions (60 minutes) and sufficiently concentrated material to leave no one in any doubt that it sized up to the implications of the title - even though its content was, in part, pictorial.

Since then, there has been a new Maxwell Davies symphony every four or five years; and the big event of the Proms this week - of the Proms this season, perhaps - was the world premiere of his Symphony No 5: played by the Philharmonia, conducted by the composer, and especially significant in that it came on the eve (more or less) of Davies's 60th birthday next month. Davies may write challenging music, but he can pull an audience. And he has not, in his old age, lost the power to surprise them. The new symphony follows the trend towards shorter duration - it lasts 25 minutes - but unlike No 4, it uses a full-sized orchestra with a lot of tuned percussion. And it suggests bulk in that it builds its argument through one long movement of sustained momentum, always pushing forwards, striving for some distant goal.

That said, there is - as often in Davies's work - a fascinating divergence between ends and means. Structurally, the sweep of sound derives from 34 short sections strung together (clearly demarcated in the score by double bar-lines, so the players, if not the listeners, are conscious of how this cellular process develops). The momentum builds without actually being driven. In fact, the nature of the writing is quite pliable: warm, appealing colours, as opposed to the ashen stone the ear associates with Davies scores of old. The textures have model clarity: you really can hear, with modest effort, what is happening. And yes, there's melody: impressionistic, sparing, but discernible.

From first acquaintance I'd say this was a softer piece than its predecessors, more welcoming, but still in the mighty Sibelian tradition of continuous transformation across a broad expanse of time. And it reconciles what I've found in the past to be a conflict between personality and technique. Previously, you got one or the other to excess, but rarely both in balanced, mutual co-operation. Here you do, superbly. And having sometimes admired Maxwell Davies the man more deeply than Maxwell Davies the music, I was relieved to hear him say in a pre-Prom talk that he considered many of his old works to be 'masks', whereas the new symphonic writing was 'the quintessential me'. The 5th Symphony is not just a fine score but a loveable one, and an encouraging precedent for the future. Sixty isn't that old.

Vaughan Williams was 71 when his 5th Symphony was premiered at the Proms in 1943, and everyone at the time assumed that would be it. He then went on to write four more. But none of them quite recaptured the sublime serenity of No 5 - a piece I have to say I love to distraction, beyond the bounds of rationality, and was transfixed to hear so very beautifully played in Wednesday's Prom by the BBC SO under Vernon Handley. Handley doesn't cut a glamorous figure on the rostrum, and his beat is angular, with a divisive break in each stroke that never looks easy to follow. But the result is actually commanding: everything about this symphony proclaimed control and understanding, with immaculately graded climaxes, an awesome sense of mystery at the start of the Scherzo (restless pianissimo strings like something stirring deep under a summer meadow's earth) and sensitive if slightly fast tempi. The rest of the programme, which was nominally a tribute to Sir Malcolm Sargent but didn't give a clear idea of what he amounted to as a conductor (perhaps, in retrospect, not very much) included a bright Till Eulenspiegel, and Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto with the veteran Moura Lympany. An institution among pianists, still delivering her warhorse repertory to devoted followers 65 years on - what does one say about Moura Lympany? Nothing, I think.

Sir William Glock presents a different problem: deciding what not to say about the most remarkable and influential of BBC music controllers, who ran the Proms from 1959 to 1972 and made them what they are today. Last Sunday's Prom was a tribute to Glock, and to give true account of his achievements it had to be of marathon duration - from six until 10.30, packing in performers like a gala. Glock is famous for saying, when he joined the BBC, that he would give its audiences 'what they will like tomorrow', and his reputation endures as a modernist: the man who brought in Pierre Boulez and cleared the airwaves for Schoenberg, Webern and composers nobody at Classic FM can pronounce. But Glock's erudition and sympathies extended across all departments of music, through the Viennese classics to the distant past. And so it was that Sunday's programme not only had Pierre Boulez conducting an ultra-refined Symphony of Psalms, and George Benjamin his own Sudden Time, but Philip Pickett being period and Colin Davis directing a positively therapeutic Mozart Piano Concerto K450, with Imogen Cooper as a radiant soloist: the sort of playing that charms birds from trees. The binding symbol of the evening, though, was an entrancing piece for period and modern instruments together, Tears of Night, written by Elisabeth Lutyens in 1972 and not heard since - presumably because the personnel required are difficult to pool. But it deserves a platform, and this hearing should secure it. Even in retirement, Glock still guides our listening.

(Photograph omitted)