New work will frighten your audience, so one lollipop (at the very least) must be in place to reward the patience of the punter should anything offend the ears. At least, so the conventional wisdom goes. Tuesday's Prom, planned, conducted and a large chunk of it composed by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, served to show what a tired old cliche that is. New music need inspire no fear and may easily outpace any war-horse put there to offer comfort.
Maxwell Davies's Sixth Symphony received its London premiere, spreading its wings, I suspect, in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall after a world premiere in a modest Orkney cinema just a few weeks ago. Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who were its excellent advocates, this work startles by the sheer beauty of its sound. In some sense it's a homage to relationships: Hoy, Davies's home for the past 25 years, where land and seascapes have left their indelible mark; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whose players Davies has got to know so well as their associate conductor / composer; and George Mackay Brown, the Orkney poet and friend who died as the symphony was reaching completion.
It's a long piece, lasting nearly 50 minutes. Unlike his previous symphonies, it's in three movements (Nos 1-4 have four each while No5 is a single movement). The spirit of Davies's St Magnus works - O Magnum mysterium, The Martyrdom of St Magnus, Ave Maris Stella - permeates the work. A luminous texture is built from favourite instrumental colours - marimba, flute, sombre strings, low brass, menacing percussion. The second movement momentarily recalls the wild, devilish energy of Eight Songs for a Mad King, only to subside back into the long, lush opening for strings alone (a portent of string quartets to come?) of the last movement, whose ending, with drily rustling "rain sticks" against faint cymbals and bass drum, startlingly suggests Eastern funeral rites. The audience responded warmly.
Davies has been particularly influenced by Nordic music, so it was not surprising to find him supplying a Nordic frame into which his symphony slipped. Nielsen's rarely heard Helios overture, a Dane's response to the Grecian sun, is a gem. Unexpected harmonic twists spruce up a dangerously hammy diminished seventh motive and stock fugal climax, but the piece thrillingly allowed the RPO horns to show their mettle. Sibelius's Lemminkainen's Return (tales of a stone-age Don Juan complete with dancing hobgoblins) with its echoes of The Ring, made a fine, unconventional ending. But the evening's lollipop, Sibelius's Violin Concerto, was something of a damp squib. Kasmin Little, making her seventh consecutive appearance at the Proms was a popular soloist. Her playing was neat but where was the passion? Perhaps it was the effort of conducting his own work, the extra strain of accompanying a soloist, or simply his lack of familiarity with the score as conductor, but Davies too gave a remarkably unromantic reading.
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