RPO/Maxwell Davies | Barbican Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Three important facets of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's orchestral writing (light music, a bravura concerto and a large-scale programmatic work) were explored in an adventurous programme superbly played by the Royal Philharmonic under the composer's baton.

"Mavis in Las Vegas" is a brilliantly orchestrated conceit inspired by a computer booking error which led to Maxwell Davies being registered in the Flamingo Hilton Hotel as "Mavis". The camp showpiece glories in its own vulgarity rather like the gaudy attractions it depicts such as the Liberace Museum and Caesar's Palace. "Mavis" has increased in girth somewhat since her debut in 1997, the RPO's expansive reading allowing every glitzy detail in the score to tell. It is high time this good-time girl appeared at the Proms.

The first world premiere of the evening was the Horn Concerto written in November last year for Richard Watkins, a remarkably wide-ranging solo part fashioned to exploit his gifts for lyricism and precision. Cast in one continuous tripartite movement, the concerto's intimate cadenza includes virtuoso solo horn arabesques vaulting over a cavernous bass clarinet and double bass pedal. Watkins constantly impressed with his committed playing, demonstrating superb control in the concerto's magical ending with a long held note evaporating into silence.

A second work in its first performance, "Roma, Amor, Labyrinthus", captures the composer's recollections of Rome as a student in the late Fifties under Goffrendo Petrassi, to whom the work is dedicated. The first movement contrasts the beauty of Rome with its brutal militaristic past. Whereas Elgar's "In the South" evokes an impressive display of marching Roman legions, Sir Peter's forces, led by tambourine, timpani and brass are more sinister.

The central movement reflects the hidden treasures of Rome. An itinerant mandolin player (cleverly scored for harp) is followed by other strains of indigenous-sounding music, including a passing brass band, and the movement closes with a disarmingly simple folk-like tune (a Max original) of touching innocence. The third and final movement celebrates the eternity of Rome and moves from the earthly pleasures of a carnival-style celebration - via the statues on top of the Roman churches - to the heavens themselves, where the composer has imagined St Michael singing with the angels.

The work ends with a splendid cacophony as bells from all the churches ring out over the capital - a Messianic melange of considerable power and effectiveness. Throughout the piece, shimmering tremolo strings create moments of Ivesian stasis. A cross between a concerto for orchestra (with its many important solos) and a massive tone poem of Straussian amplitude, "Roma" is one of Sir Peter's most spectacular scores, evoking the might of the ancient city state from a very personal viewpoint.