MUSIC / Quick and dead: Stephen Johnson on Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Duke Quartet

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The Independent Culture
One-composer concerts are risky, and not only in box- office terms. Even the biggest names can be too much when heard in quantity, and with difficult modern composers fatigue can set in early on.

In that respect the Royal Philharmonic's all-Sir Peter Maxwell Davies programme on Wednesday (at the Royal Festival Hall, London) looked sensible enough on paper. It began with one of the toughest works of the early 1960s, the Fantasia No 2 on John Taverner's 'In Nomine'. Then the listening got steadily easier. First came the Strathclyde Concerto No 4 for clarinet and orchestra, based on a 19th-century Scottish folk-song, which is finally revealed in a nearly-pure F sharp major in the closing pages. Then, the finale: the kindest Max of all, Orkney Wedding with Sunrise - tonal, Scottish folk saturated by bagpipes (with the piper emerging through the audience as the concluding coup de theatre).

But the most cleverly arranged contrasts are doomed if the performances don't rise to the challenge, and on this occasion, despite the supervision of the composer himself, the playing was often lacking in energy, even slipshod. There was an ominous sign near the start of Fantasia No 2 when the solo cello read one of its entries a fifth too high. Subsequent problems weren't quite so glaring, but the textures tended to lack focus, the frenetic brass writing towards the climax of the first movement was more blurred than it need have been, and the string playing in the final slow section fell a long way short of Mahlerian anguish. In the right kind of performance, the passion and underlying sense of discovery in this music can drive doubts about this or that detail into the shade. Not here.

The RPO seemed to warm more to the less-demanding writing of the Strathclyde Concerto. Clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy was a capable but somewhat reticent soloist. The expressive charge was on the low side; the characterisation and colouring rather too even. There were signs of awakening spirit in parts of Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, but juxtaposed with some messy wind playing. The sun did rise eventually, but we seemed to have been waiting a long time for it. Complete contrast with the murky but often dynamic Max was provided by the Duke Quartet in their Park Lane Group Young Artists concert at the Purcell Room the previous evening. They offered a newish work by John Tavener, a distant descendant of the Taverner who inspired Maxwell Davies's Fantasia - though the overlap ends there. Tavener's piece is called The Hidden Treasure, but in this case the treasure was very well- hidden indeed. Tavener has a gift for radiant simplicity, but in recent years much of his large output has sounded like familiar ideas recycled. It can't even be said of The Hidden Treasure that the elements are rearranged in any newly significant way. Tavener would no doubt scorn such a thoroughly modern notion of originality - the new equals the good. But then came Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, triumphantly vindicating Stravinsky's description of it as 'that absolutely contemporary work that will be contemporary for ever'. Some pieces, it seems, are eternally new and challenging. The Hidden Treasure, on the other hand, was probably old before it was born.