THE SUNDAY TIMES:
Ave Maris Stella, written in 1975 for Davies’s ensemble the Fires of London, a mixed sextet, is one of his profoundest and most luminous works, taking inspiration from Beethoven’s late string quartets as well as from medieval plainsong, his habitual practice. The opening cello line memorably conjures up at once Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet, Op 131, and the plainsong that gives Davies’s work its title. Fiercely difficult to play though the music is – and it is meant to be unconducted, like true chamber music – it comes over here with an idiomatic ease and brilliance that make the work seem truly classical. Vintage Max indeed. ××××
CLASSIC FM MAGAZINE:
Despite his fierce reputation as a composer to frighten the horses, Peter Maxwell Davies has always traded his instinctive modernism against a dialogue of music of the past. Ave Maris Stella , written in 1975, is a signature piece and a tour-de-force. Maxwell Davies constructs the work from transformed plainsong testing his musicians to a tipping-point of impossibility with unrelenting virtuosic challenges. Another inspiration was, perhaps, Beethoven as the opening cello line hovers around the memory of the Op. 131 String Quartet – a sphinx-like compositional enigma, brilliantly decoded by Gemini.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE:
Ave Maris Stella (1975) reaffirms itself as a tour de force of ear-gripping virtuosity. Pick of the smaller works is Davies's reworking of an old Scottish tune for Psalm 124. Absolutely superb.
The instrumental sextet Ave Maris Stella is one of Peter Maxwell Davies's greatest achievements, and one of the most powerful of all instrumental works. Composed in 1975, it's a single-movement sextet, almost 30 minutes long, falling into nine interlinked sections. It is based on the plainsong chant of the same name, and inhabits the distinctive sound world, characterised by the marimba, of so many of the works that Davies produced after he settled in Orkney a few years earlier. It's a tough, thrillingly sustained musical argument, and a piece that's as challenging for the performers as it is for the first-time listener, but the Gemini players seem to be totally on top of its thematic intricacies and finely honed lyricism. Alongside it they include three much slighter works. One, the paraphrase of Psalm 124, is contemporary with Ave Maris Stella, while the others, Dove, Star-Folded, and Economies of Scale, are recent tribute pieces, close to the musical world of Davies's series of Naxos Quartets.
THE CLARINET (USA):
Ave Maris Stella is a complex and rugged work which through repeated hearings reveals its logic and striking originality. It is not for the faint of heart and makes stronger demands of an active listener than the remainder of the disc's programme.
The individual and ensemble virtuosity demanded by several of these pieces is considerable. The performances by the members of Gemini are superbly committed and convey the excitement and timbral beauty of this music in a very impressive manner. Balance and blend is superb and well captured by the engineer(s) of the PATS Studio in the Department of Music and Sound Recording at Surrey University. This first-rate disc is recommended to active listeners with open ears.
Ave Maris Stella ( Hail, Star of the Sea ) is the longest work on this rather short-running CD. It is based on the same plainsong melody used by Monteverdi in his Vespers and by many other composers. These include Dunstable - one of the medieval composers so admired by Maxwell Davies. Nowadays when PMD's works seem to be more available on-line than on new CDs, this disc is an especial pleasure. It is no surprise that this large-scale work dates from 1975 when Davies was at the height of his interest in early music. His many realizations were produced for ‘The Fires of London' or ‘The Pierrot Players' as they were known for some of the early years and whom he directed for several years. In fact they recorded it for the now defunct Unicorn-Kanchana label (latterly UKCD 2038) under the composer's direction in 1981. They continued in existence until 1987. It's interesting to compare the versions. Incidentally if you can get hold of the Unicorn disc it also possesses ‘Image, Reflection and Shadow', and ‘Runes from the Holy Island' - a very generous coupling. The problem with the older disc is that thirty minute long Ave Maris Stella was only allotted one track. This was despite falling into nine sections which the composer insists should be unconducted. On this new disc the work is presented in nine tracks and the structure and pictures behind the piece are clearly brought to our attention. Consequently I felt as if I understood the piece better, although I must add that the older version has more ‘atmos' in its beautiful, opening five or six minute section. This is enabled by a spacious recording which is less concerned with highlighting the individual lines. The new recording is closer and vivid and that does help to ensure that all the detail is captured. The two versions are of almost identical length.
In his useful if at times somewhat technical notes Christopher Mark gives a great amount of detail on the form and background to the work and on PMD's use of the so-called ‘Magic Square'. I can't say, and I speak as a composer myself, how this really works, Mark's explanation is quite clear but as none of this can really be heard and I have no score, it's all rather useless; anyway as Mark says it's the “composer's business”. Even the actual plainsong melody quoted towards the end is not at all easy to spot. Nevertheless the nocturnal, elegiac quality of a significant part of this music is a great attraction. This is aided by its fast passages. The whole piece is one virtuoso performing exercise and a compositional tour-de-force .
From 1974 comes Psalm 124 which was also recorded by ‘The Fires' on LP many years ago. Like ‘Ave Maris' there is an important marimba part and also one for glockenspiel. Both of these instruments were to be ‘done to death' in the Symphony No. 1 of 1979. In the Psalm they are surrounded by a halo of flute doubling alto flute, bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello and guitar. The latter breaks up variants of the Scottish psalm tune with some complex polyphonic solo sections, making the piece, formally, quite intriguing.
The more recent works are quite concentrated, even terse, and in a way are ‘chippings from the master's studio'. Also I never got the feeling with Max that he was simply ‘going through the motions'. I say this despite his having been incredibly prolific. These pieces are certainly worth getting to know.
‘Dove, Star-Folded' (does the title remind you of a George Mackay Brown poem title?) is scored for a string trio and was composed at Christmas 2000 as a spontaneous memorial for Steven Runiciman, (his book ‘The Fall of Constantinople' is a masterpiece). It has therefore a solemn and intense mood but a lively almost skittish middle section.
Gemini have a wonderful sense of ensemble and are in touch with the internal rhythm so needed in this music. This comes to the fore again in the last work ‘Economies of Scale' - an odd title? So I thought too, but it was commissioned by Sir James Morrison, Scottish economist and Nobel Prize winner in the Nobel centenary year. The astringent and almost wild opening with dominating piano gradually calms down into what Christopher Mark calls a “beautifully poised ending”, a whole world has passed by in seven minutes.
In a way this disc is iconic contemporary music of our times - challenging for performers and for listeners but not unfriendly. It gives a sense at the end that you have not wasted your time and that you have heard pieces worth their space in the world and the disc a space on your over-loaded shelves. You feel that the music says something and that the players believe in it. The recording is first class and the highly professional presentation of accompanying booklet and photographs helpful and serious. All in all a deservedly high quality product delivered from the hands of top musicians.
A modern recording of Ave maris stella (1975) has long been needed. It is one of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's most challenging compositions for the Fires of London, closely linked in both atmosphere and structure with the long sequence of Orkney-inspired symphonic compositions on which he had recently embarked. But the music also explores tensions between intricately structured and expansively improvisatory materials which could hardly work in conducted orchestral music. As such, it has a certain experimental quality, and I'm not entirely persuaded that the long marimba cadenza – played here with some deliberation by Joby Burgess – is quite imaginative enough to balance the marvellously wrought dialogues between rapturous lyricism and stormy agitation which are otherwise predominant. The impact of Gemini's performance, in this properly concentrated acoustic environment, is nevertheless more than enough to explain the high place accorded to the work in the Maxwell Davies canon.
Psalm 124, written the year before Ave maris stella , is a more explicit tribute to things Scottish, characteristically transforming found 16 th -century materials in ways that shun parodistic extravagance and owe much to the understated reflectiveness of its interludes for solo guitar.
There are also two much more recent pieces. Dove,Star-Folded (2000) is a generally sober tribute to Sir Stephen Runciman whose scoring for string trio offers a foretaste of the textural qualities developed in the Naxos Quartet cycle. Economies of Scale (2002) is more exuberant, and although its title reflects its dedication to the Scottish economist James Merrilees, the composer keeps explicit restraints, as well as tonal implications, in check until the gentle final stages.
AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE:
Of the four chamber works on this program, the main event is the nearly half-hour Ave Maris Stella (1975), a sextet for flute(s), clarinet, viola, cello, marimba, and piano. Taking off from the plainchant, Davies produces (for the first time) one of his “magic squares”, a serial matrix generating both the piece's pitch and rhythmic material. Despite its diatonic roots, the perpetual variation concept and 70s chromatic serialism make imposing demands on listener's patience and attention, though we are told in the notes that the compositional processes involved are “of little concern to anyone but the composer and those who concern themselves professionally with such matters”. This suggests a “just let the music wash all over you” listening strategy, which may be enough to satisfy some, but I always have preferred more substantial involvement in the music I listen to. The piece does break into nine easily audible sections, and Metier thoughtfully offers track divisions. People who don't care about such things could still appreciate the sheer virtuosity involved. This seems enough for the composer's many fans and made him “Master of the Queen's Music” in 2004, and what could be more impressive than his dramatic Orkney Islands isolation and his huge catalog? Audiences have changed since the 70s, but if you are nostalgic for those times you will certainly value this excellent performance.
Turning to the remaining pieces, the contemporaneous and considerably less complicated Psalm 124 (1974), also built on Early Music material, is described by the composer as a “Motet for Instrumental Ensemble after [medieval and renaissance composers] David Peebles, John Fethy, and an Anonymous Scottish Source”. Davies transforms and superimposes melodic lines from this music with counterpoint built with what one of my teachers liked to call “dirty harmony”. The piece's three sections have brief interludes from a solo guitar that transform the previous material.
Dove, Star-Folded (2000) is a brief work for string trio in memory of scholar Sir Steven Runciman, and is based on a Greek Byzantine hymn (apparently Sir Steven's object of study). The piece, essentially a more traditional theme and variations, alternates somber treatments of the hymn with livelier passages. Economies of Scale (2002), for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, was commissioned by Nobel Laureate economist Sir James Mirrlees. Opening with a bombastic explosion, the piece
is primarily angular and “difficult”—more chromatic and old-fashioned-modernist than anything else on the program—yet it is the most recent work here.
Peter Maxwell Davies, the enfant terrible of British music back in the 1970s, has since become an established composer who, like Benjamin Britten before him, has been given a knighthood. Possibly his most famous piece from that era (at least in America) was his bizarre voice-and-instrumental piece Eight Songs for a Mad King, which still has the power to astonish even today (should anyone be foolhardy enough to attempt singing it—it requires a four-and-a-half octave range).
The opening piece on this disc of his chamber music, the Psalm 124 with his own unusual harmonic touches and quiet solo guitar interludes between sections, is far less of an assault on the ear. In fact, it is quite quiet music, gentle and beautifully arranged for flute and alto flute, bass clarinet, glockenspiel, marimba, violin, viola, cello, and guitar. Even the recognizable Maxwell Davies chord positions, though naturally lying outside the original Psalm, are more like a sort of disquieting ambience rather than a tumult of sound. Dove, Star-Folded, composed in 2000 as a memorial for Steven Runciman and "based on a Greek Byzantine hymn" according to the notes, is given to a string trio and maintains the quiet mood, at least at first. In the middle, a busy and rather disquieting fast passage erupts, ebbs, and returns. The annotator remarks on its similarity to the late Beethoven quartets, but it has more in common with the quartets of Bartok.
Economies of Scale had its premiere in 2002, which makes it the latest work on this disc. Here I agree with annotator Christopher Mark that this music does indeed have an affinity with Messiaen, not only because the instrumentation is the same (clarinet, violin, cello, and piano) but also because of certain moments in the chordal writing for piano. This begins as a generally faster, louder, more aggressive piece, and like Mark I find similarities to the Messiaen quartet in the quirky asymmetrical meters. Nevertheless, Maxwell Davies is constantly changing his thematic material, more often in contrast rather than development, possibly because this is, after all, only a one-movement work lasting a little more than seven minutes. Some of the kind of writing one hears for the instrumental ensemble in Eight Songs is present here, the glissando cello passages and the brittle, atonal piano chords that seem to come out of nowhere, but again, the material is condensed and used in what I feel is a more coherent and less shocking (in the emotional as well as the musical sense) progression. It is curious that despite the aggressive opening, the music gradually slows down and almost fades out at the end.
After this we come to the most extended work on this disc, Ave Marts Stella, which was also composed in 1975. It was dedicated to the memory of Hans Juda, who acted as honorary treasurer for the group it was written for, The Fires of London, which by coincidence played the backup for Julius Eastman on that long-ago recording of Eight Songs for a Mad King. It is composed for almost the same configuration as Psalm 124, except that the viola player does not double on violin and there is no guitar. The theme as stated in the opening movement is then transformed in each one succeeding. The notes say that "the main line is not always immediately obvious," but I find it fairly easy to discern. Your experience may vary. One reason some listeners may have trouble picking up the theme is that it is sometimes broken up and tossed around between the instruments, almost hocket-style, but if you've heard as much jazz as I have where exactly the same thing happens (believe it or not, this goes back as far as the New Orleans style played in the 1920s as for modern jazz), you'll hear it. Like the instrumental ensemble used on Eight Songs, the music here is decidedly more nervous in places, even grating. Maxwell Davies's sense of structure keeps the piece from becoming incoherent, but particularly because of the edgy, harsh sound he requires of the clarinetist, I find it a little too edgy at times. Nevertheless, the composer creates some remarkable and fascinating instrumental blends, particularly in the marimba passages, which sometimes well up from below like a harp, and at other times assert a cross-rhythm that sets the whole ensemble a little more on edge and takes it farther away from a comfort zone. But as Duke Ellington said in the early 1960s, when he was asked to play in an "avant-garde" style, "Let's not go back that far!" The extended marimba solo in variation 6 reminds me of some of the work Red Norvo did back in the 1930s, particularly his 1933 recording of Dane of the Octopus where he played marimba instead of his usual xylophone, although Maxwell Davies develops the music more thoroughly and, toward the end, the viola plays a soft yet edgy sustained note in the background that eventually leads us to busier, more aggressive music once again. Yet the trend toward quietude is stronger, and the work ends with a variation where the marimba plays repeated notes on the beat while the strings sustain different tones, before eventually moving upward (possibly an allegory for a soul striving toward heaven?), the instruments play a crescendo, and the work ends disquietingly.
Years of experience of listening to modern music has, for me, finally taken it away from the province of the novel and helped me hear it more in context for its thematic development and placement within the long continuum of musical creation. Perhaps, also, hearing later music that is far stranger than Maxwell Davies's has taken some of the edge off his "avant-garde" label. You might put it that his music is more purely enjoyable to me now than it once was, and the generally quiet (one might almost say subdued) mood of this recital draws listeners inward rather than pushing them away.
Lynn Rene Bayley
Composed in 1975, the instrumental sextet Ave Maris Stella is one of the composer's greatest achievements. A single 30-minute movement based on the plainchant of the same name, its haunting soundworld, with marimba prominent, was created by Davies after his move to Orkney a few years earlier. The Gemini Ensemble make this tough, knotty composition – in a kind of serial structure, a ‘magic square' or matrix generates a cantus firmus for each section – totally compelling.
While his avant garde credentials have been overshadowed by those of now dominant colleague Harrison Birtwistle, this composition shows how radical Maxwell Davies could be. Three short pieces – a paraphrase of Psalm 124, Dove, Star-Folded and Economies of Scale – complete the disc.
OVERGROWNPATH.COM (FUTURE RADIO):
To start the week two excellent reasons why this new release of Peter Maxwell Davies' chamber music is good news. First, it's great music passionately played by the chamber ensemble Gemini and vividly recorded in the slightly dry acoustics of Studio 1 at the Department of Sound & Recording at the University of Surrey. (The department is very highly rated and has offered a tonmeister course for many years). The main work on the CD is Ave Maris Stella from 1975 which lasts for almost 30 minutes. This is classic early Max, writing before he was seduced by the plush sounds of the symphony orchestra and string quartet. Strange isn't it how composers like Maxwell Davies and Ralph Vaughan Williams produce some of their best works on religious themes yet are non-believers? Worth the purchase price alone is Dove, Star Folded from 2001 which, unusually for Max, is based on a Greek Byzantine hymn; John Tavener had better look out.
The second reason why this CD is good news is that it comes from the Metier label which has been acquired by the enterprising small Divine Art Record Company (who have nothing at all to do with Falun Gong). Metier have a back catalogue well worth exploring, Michael Finnissy Music for String Quartet, Roberto Gerhard String Quartets and Morton Feldman and Christopher Fox's Clarinet and String Quartet are just some of the riches while Divine Art has a future release of piano sonatas from Elliott Carter, Miklos Rosza, Charles Ives and Edward MacDowell.
MID WEST RECORD:
One of contemporary classical music’s leading lights revisits a seminal work that brought him to the fore in the first place. With the added grace and wisdom that time brings, Maxwell and his pals in Gemini know how to deliver this as a new work that first time listeners as well as old hands can bring a sense of vivid discovery to. A well rounded work that’s probably too complex for easy listeners that like things cut up and digested for them, this is the kind of work that gives challenging music a good name. High octane, high tone, high calibre listening throughout.
I thought we were going to have ‘I was born under a wandering star' with the opening low tones of Psalm 124 . This is one of Davies's earlier pieces referring to mediaeval and renaissance sources for some of the musical material. The slow unfolding of relatively straightforward intervals, transparent instrumentation including solo guitar recitatives, and low marimba, cello and bass clarinet sonorities gives the work a timeless, remote sort of feel. Gentle variations with flute and glockenspiel over the top add colour and sparkle in the opening, but the central bass clarinet solo sounds a little flat to me – not so much out of tune as giving little in the way of phrasing and tonal interest. Rather than fading, the piece rises to a sort of climax – one of those ambiguous ones to which you could effectively add a recapitulating coda, but the piece just stops.
Dove, Star-Folded is a string trio, and was written as a memorial for Sir Steven Runciman. This time the music has its origins in a Greek Byzantine hymn, referring to Sir Steven's researches into Byzantine history. This is not an element which is immediately apparent, and Christopher Mark's booklet notes indicate that the piece has been compared with the atmosphere to be found in late Beethoven Quartets, Op.132 for instance. Longer periods of introverted repose and some unexpected angular contrasts might give that idea, but I'm afraid the piece rumbled along without making much of an impression on me – probably because I've been listening to too much Shostakovich. The last minutes from 6:50 do however have their own serene beauty.
By way of contrast, Economies of Scale opens with an explosion of notes. The most recent piece in this programme; there are echoes of Messiaen in some of the piano writing, the birdlike phrases and the almost inevitable association with sonorities such as flautando violin and clarinet. The music has a fascinating narrative, almost programmatic content to my ears, seeming to pass through related events rather than flow in a way in which memory connects shapes to create structure over time. The intensity of the opening is counterbalanced by the serenity of the conclusion, creating a short story which you immediately want to read again.
At nearly half an hour, Ave Maris Stella is by a long way the most substantial work on this disc. Written for the ensemble The Fires of London, the virtuosic nature of the music reflects the avant-garde credentials of this legendary group, which was on a par with the London Sinfonietta. Their composer-directed recording on Unicorn-Kanchana is still available, and is still something of a must-have if you are interested in British contemporary music of the flared jeans and long hair period. There is a description in the booklet notes of the magic square matrix used in formulating the material for this piece, but it suffices to say that this is more of a springboard from which compositional processes can begin, rather than a strict serial technique à la Webern. While the plainchant from which the title derives appears to be and is part of the fabric of the piece, there is a greater sense of atonality in much of this music, making for something more of a sustained intellectual challenge for the listener. With a little extra concentration, and attention to the atmosphere and instrumental colours in the writing you should in fact discover that there are fewer problems than you might imagine. Each section is well enough defined, with contrasts between, for instance, an extended marimba solo, and a subsequent movement in which a rich interaction between the other instruments gathers seemingly disparate arguments into the more lyrical and expressive solos of the next. The ticking marimba in the exquisite final movement may or may not be a nod in the direction of colleague and clock fan Harrison Birtwistle, with whom Davies founded the Pierrot Players, predecessors of The Fires of London.
Gemini has performed and recorded extensively since its formation in 1974, working in music education as ensemble-in-residence at a number of institutes, and winning prizes and awards along the way. Like the builder's broom, the various bits have changed over the years, but they make a fine noise: playing with great panache on this disc, and with a clear affinity with the composer's craftsman-like idiom. The studio recording, while a little on the dry side, is also very good.