Max: Peter Maxwell Davies Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It seems uncanny that two of Britain's greatest composers should have been born in the same year. Last year, the South Bank Centre celebrated the 70th birthday of Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Now, a little late, it's the turn of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. "Max" is a festival that runs to 30 April, with concerts and workshops featuring professional musicians, students of the Royal Academy of Music, and children from schools in the London area. Venues include the South Bank, the Royal Academy of Music, and Westminster Cathedral.

The opening concert featured two of Maxwell Davies' most searing music-theatre works, written more than 30 years ago. Miss Donnithorne's Maggot (1974) is a miniature scena, a study in madness. Miss Donnithorne, abandoned on her wedding day, continues to wear her wedding gown and stays shut in her house until her death 30 years later. It was an inspired choice to present Jane Manning as Miss Donnithorne, not only because she is an artist of astonishing gift but because she is also one of the greatest performers of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and in her performance of the Maxwell Davies, the two pieces are palpably linked.

When this work was first performed, the soloist, Mary Thomas, was perhaps 30. Manning is easily twice that age, but her performance is desperately touching, the more disturbing for being played as reminiscence. Where Davies introduces Victorian salon music as parody to the lunatic ravings of Miss Donnithorne, there's little laughter; death is round the corner. Maxwell Davies' earlier Eight Songs for a Mad King perhaps eclipsed this work, but with a performance of such scorching intensity (without conductor), the ensemble Psappha and Manning may have turned the tables.

An even earlier work is Vesalii Icones (1969), inspired by the 16th-century Vesalius's anatomical drawings and the 14 Stations of the Cross. For male dancer and solo cello, it is almost a double concerto with small ensemble. Previous productions have dressed the cellist as a monk, but here the hugely talented Jennifer Langridge, in a simple shift, looked more like Mary Magdalene, and the dancer Michael Rolnick, with curls and beard, was Christ-like. His dancing skilfully embraced writhing, leaping, anguish and pain. Nicholas Kok conducted and Elaine Tyler-Hall directed.

This festival is fabulous. Don't miss it.

To 30 April (0870 380 0400; www.rfh.org.uk/max)

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