This is a most worthwhile and imaginatively programmed disc, with fine music expertly played. The Kreutzer Quartet present Maxwell Davies works for string quartet from 1952 (the earliest work on the disc, written when he was just 18), 1961, 1980, and 1987 (a revision of a piece from 1977). Their performances are exemplary and involving. They seem to bring out the essence of each, very different, quartet. Ian Pace plays the Five Pieces for Piano Op. 2 thoughtfully and sensitively. The set shows the strong influence of the European avant-garde on the composer at this time, tempered by a rather English restraint, which certainly disappeared from Davies’s music before long.
Of the works with clarinet, the Sonata for clarinet and piano from 1956-57 is the earliest. The liner notes tell us that it was first performed at Darmstadt in 1957 by Georgina Dobrée and the composer, and that the score was then lost, and rediscovered in 1983 by Kevin Corner. It is a substantial 3-movement work lasting just over 15 minutes, and is dedicated to Harrison Birtwistle, clarinettist and fellow student in Manchester. As with so many of his pieces, Davies places the slow movement last, beginning with a Moderato movement followed by an accelerating Allegro – Presto – Prestissimo, and closing with the Adagio – Lento molto. The Moderato has arching, expressive clarinet lines, clearly taking the Second Viennese School as a starting point. The piano supports, or opposes, for the most part with elaborate, decorative material. The two kinds of music gradually merge, dissolve and finally disappear with gentle wisps of sound in a most poetic way. The second movement has much intricate part writing for both instruments, and there is a deal of ebb and flow, again with a sense of overall restraint, belying the impression given by tempo indications at the head of the movement. The final Adagio integrates the clarinet and piano music much more than previously, with more unisons, shared phrases, echoes, and dialogue, closing with a poignant unaccompanied clarinet recitative. There is a sense of the elegiac and the reflective about the work as a whole, certainly in this performance, which is convincingly and enjoyably projected by Guy Cowley and Ian Pace. The Sonata is still worth programming, and stands up well after nearly fifty years. It is interesting as a very early example of Maxwell Davies’s writing for clarinet, a style that changed radically ten years on, but is also worthwhile in its own right.
Probably the clarinet work by this composer that is best known is Hymnos of 1967 for clarinet and piano, written for Alan Hacker and Stephen Pruslin. It was composed at the height of Max’s wildly expressionist period, and places the most extreme technical demands on both players. It also offers a serious musical challenge. Whilst the compositional devices are elaborate and complex, they are not readily perceived; the overall impression is a kaleidoscope of extremes of gesture, on both an intimate and a large scale. Extremes of tempo, dynamics, durations, articulation, range, complexity of material, confront the players at every turn. It is not a piece for the faint-hearted player – or listener. Cowley and Pace throw themselves into it with commitment, and the result is often exciting. Listen to the playing in the fourth section, for instance, where the clarinet scampers in spectacular fashion through a tortuous, frantic, highly articulated high-lying line over rapid piano repetitions and punctuations. It sounds very much as if the recording was made in huge’ takes’ to achieve this sense of involved performance, and all credit to both players for doing this admirably. However, in many senses the piece stands or falls by the detail. There needs to be a clearer gradation of dynamics, for instance between the different levels of forte and piano to give more sense of the rapidly changing colours; and many of the clarinet slurs are missed, giving a more disjointed feel to certain passages, thus losing the (often very brief) melodic content and contrast. This is most noticeable in one section of movement nine, which does not project the expressive line captured so well in the first movement of the early Sonata on this disc. There is a misjudgement in the final page, where the powerful recitando notes that lead up to the famous clarinet top Eb are played much faster and less emphasised than marked. Consequently this huge gesture (possibly the most extreme, even in Maxwell Davies’s OTT style at this time) to which the previous pages (spectacularly played by both artists) have been leading, and from which the music never recovers in the closing few bars, does not make its necessary climactic impact.
The Seven Brightnesses for solo clarinet of 1975 lasting 6 1⁄2 minutes, again written for Alan Hacker, shows Guy Cowley’s adventurous approach. It is a fiendishly difficult work, not least because the range extends upwards from top C eventually reaching a high G (an octave above Beethoven 8). He presents these with the right sense of brinkmanship. Whilst not all the multiphonics are successful, (and there may be a misunderstanding of the fact that harmonics are gradually to be added near the end), there is a sense of performance about the piece, and the excitement of a player taking on a huge challenge. After some anodyne recording this is refreshing, and throughout the performances of the clarinet works one feels one is at a live event, with all the risks that are entailed in repertoire as demanding as this.
It is a pity to my ears that The Seven Brightnesses follows on directly after Hymnos (despite a long silence). I would have preferred the two pieces to be separated by Little Quartet 1 and Little Quartet 2, which follow.