Spring Symphonies: 13/60 Maxwell Davies: Symphony No 10

Image: Graeme Robertson and Guardian

This is the youngest symphony in this survey - it was premiered in London on 2 February 2014 by Sir Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Markus Butter (baritone). Such is the state of the world that it already has a Wikipedia page.

Generally with new works I like to go in cold at first, I listened twice and made notes second time shortly afterwards. No recording exists yet and one never knows if there will be one though this would seem to be an ideal candidate for the LSO's own label. And there's performance on YouTube either - but there is a 5 min video of the Master of the Queen's Musik talking out his new work. 

As a musical experience it works as a quite conflicted symphony - declamatory and fussy finding some resolution at the end in response against a stark background.  That said the programmatic background which seems essential to a get a detailed feeling for the music. The innovative, if slightly crazy and mostly tragic life celebrated, and mourned, here is that of Borromini - the baroque master who got the smaller commissions in Rome when the big ones went to Bernini and colleagues.  He created many inspiring buildings in small spaces and his crazy use of perspective to enlarge the space beyond it’s physical size is mimicked by Maxwell Davies here.

The four parts run continuously - the first part associated with the architect and his methods - hammers are even used in the orchestra in a great parade of percussion.  The chorus brings in part 2 with a sonnet which attacks Borromini and the baritone interjects with some self-defence by the architect.  The third part is more construction themed music - slightly less clangerous than before - and the finale turns this work into something more poignant.  The chorus sings a poem of rejection and the baritone sings Borromini’s now words on his attempted suicide using his own sword, the wounds from which were later to kill him. Alongside this the chorus sound out the names of his greatest architectural achievements and the piece ends with the chorus returning to Borromini’s self defence from his critics - his inspiration - music.

Pappano is not a conductor one would associate with Maxwell Davies let alone a modern symphony but he and the orchestra brought the colour of the work over very well and it received tumultuous applause.  Klemperer once argued that we should stop playing Beethoven’s Ninth because new music must be given a chance to take it’s place in our hearts and minds - if this didn’t happen the genre would die.  I think he would have been surprised by two factors - first that so many orchestras still play Beethoven’s Ninth and that there’s still room for new music too.  And this new symphony was cheered to the rafters at its premiere and though scant in content the reviews were positive.  There seems to be an appetite for both and room for both.

So when it arrives on disc - this symphony will be worth hearing again.  The second recording will be even better - but who knows who will make that.  The subject may be obscure at first glance but the ageing Maxwell Davies was facing death at the time of writing and his examination of what remains after death is an eternal one approached from a novel angle.

There’s much to enjoy - not least the composer’s ear for a dramatic contrasts between the somewhat rigid constraints of the “building” music, the fine choral music (rather direct and uncluttered: and distinctly in the English tradition) and the dramatic role for the baritone.  The roll call of churches is elegantly impassioned and evocation of the patron saint of music is rather uplifting given the aggression of the music before.  Not so much raging at the dying of the light, but some re-assuring reflection to creators large and small in the face of the impertinence of illness.


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