REVIEW / Max among the oilmen: Meredith Oakes on the BBC Philharmonic with its 'composer/conductor' at the Royal Albert Hall

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EVEN when he used to write mad scenes and foxtrots, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies did not luxuriate, but remained skittishly bleak. An inherent sobriety, which became overt after he moved to Orkney, governs his conducting as well as his compositions.

He offered a plain, four-square programme at the BBC Philharmonic's Prom on Thursday night. First came a contained, sweetly growling performance of Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music whose sad frailty set the scene for his own 1979 piece Black Pentecost. After the interval, concert staples: Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations played with airy incisiveness by cello virtuoso Colin Carr, and Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, clean and a bit grey.

Black Pentecost is a setting for mezzo and baritone of texts by the Stromness writer George Mackay Brown, whose unsentimental, heartfelt, well-cadenced writing has inspired several mature Maxwell Davies pieces. Here the source is the novel Greenvoe, which describes the cataclysmic effect of oil exploitation on a Scottish island. The music, like the prose, flows in long, quiet, overlaid lines, snagged and highlighted by accents expertly placed like darts.

There is nothing overtly theatrical, yet the whole scheme is theatrically sophisticated, with stance and subject matter perfectly matched. The excellent soloists, Della Jones and David Wilson- Johnson, were always on firm ground: formal, clear, hard-hitting and paradoxically able to speak with personal force to the whole Albert Hall.

A funereal bass drum, often in halting two-beat figures, lay beneath an exiguous orchestral skein, mostly strings. The many brass instruments were used sparingly, to gild and intensify the peaks. A marimba throbbed anxiously just under the surface, and odd bass pizzicati shifted the floor from time to time.

First the baritone described the arrival of machinery and huts as the oil project Black Star got under way: judicious prose, nothing overdriven, just the sound of certainties crumbling. Most of the setting was syllabic, with melodies as long as the sentences, and jumps of pitch that were angular but small enough to maintain a flowing forward drive. Then the soprano burst into a more florid and orchestrally punchy depiction of the island Hellya before its destruction. The alternation of singers continued, twice culminating in duo passages where the baritone carried the story while the soprano added melismatic echoes of vanished paradise.

Cameos like the soprano's description of Bella Budge hiding a hen under her shawl as she left the island for the first time, and forever, were done straightforwardly: the art was in the apparently conversational, vivid continuity of the voice, while the orchestra drew on a store of percussion devices - odd jingle bells, or a cymbal that pecked - to expand the atmosphere without attention-seeking.

Another reminder of flavours from the Seventies came with the bashing drum and falsetto used as the baritone, boss of Black Star, explained the necessity of sinking an opening through a farm that had stood since the 11th century. Even this grotesquerie was tellingly contained in the sombre, gentle colour of the whole.

(Photograph omitted)

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