Proms / Only connect: Stephen Johnson on the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's new symphony
Thursday 11 August 1994
Connections with Sibelius's En Saga and Beethoven's Emperor Concerto were more obvious. Sibelius's powerful organic thinking and the brooding atmosphere of some passages (especially the quiet ones) have left their mark on Davies's later style. With Beethoven, the greatest long-term thinker of them all, the connections are clear, and the Emperor's alternation of delicacy and hard-edged assertiveness also felt like a point of contact. Like Beethoven, Davies can be inwardly poetic one moment and startlingly blunt the next.
But however much this 'Symphony in one movement' invoked other models (specifically, we were told, Beethoven's Fifth and Sibelius's Seventh symphonies), its main task was to convince on its own terms. There were certainly striking, beautiful things: low flute and weirdly sliding piccolo against high violin harmonics, muscular allegro dance passages, tiny bursts of soaring or cascading virtuosity from a solo trumpet. The coda, slowly thinning down to quiet, sporadic bass pizzicatos and soft drum taps, was magical - the kind of ending that makes you want to go back and try again.
But not all of it was as convincing first time round. There are passages, as in many recent Maxwell Davies pieces, where I find the harmonic thinking impenetrable and the orchestration just plain ugly. And the fondness for the 'Scotch Snap' is growing dangerously close to mannerism. What may be convincing local colouring to one set of ears may strike another as about as authentically Scottish as a tartan shortbread tin or a Balmoral Castle snowstorm. Final impression? There's plenty of interest along the way, but the sustained, sweeping logic of Beethoven's Fifth or Sibelius's Seventh? Not quite.
Still, it's worth noting that, whatever the much-publicised 'Heckler' Keith Burstein or the journalist Edward Pearce may claim, Maxwell Davies's Fifth was enthusiastically received by a near- capacity audience. Perhaps they would argue that this was all show - people wanting to be seen to be up to date. I find that hard to believe. Gauging sincerity of applause is not an easy task, but to me the reception for Davies felt as warm as that given to Andreas Haefliger for his Emperor Concerto, a performance with style, purpose and a great deal of beauty - a pity that, on this occasion, Bamert and the Philharmonia couldn't match his artistry nor, in places, his tuning.
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