On record: Peter Maxwell Davies – Music for Brass


A new disc from The Wallace Collection on Nimbus Records, exploring Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ rich and varied writing for brass instruments.

What’s the music like?

This collection brings with it some fascinating contrasts. On the one hand is the substantial Brass Quintet, a large-scale piece the composer wrote for the Empire Brass Quintet in 1981. It leaves a lasting impression, especially in the second of the three movements – an Adagio 16 minutes in length. It explores some desolate sound pictures, the composer achieving a strikingly dark and often subdued backdrop akin to the sky of the Lowry painting on the cover of the release.

Yet like that picture (Yachts, from 1959) there are pinpricks of light, too, as Maxwell Davies brings the instruments out in a solo capacity – especially the horn and two trumpets. It is a pointer towards the two complementary solo works on the disc. Litany for a Ruined Chapel between Sleep and Shore is for trumpet, and was written about the medieval ruins on the Orkney island of Sanday, where the composer moved in 1999. Sea Eagle, for solo horn, is a musical observation of a creature that captivated the composer from his first Orkney home in 1982.

Shorter works for brass complete the program, with a ceremonial fanfare written for the opening of The Lowry arts centre in Manchester, and arrangements of four short pieces by Tallis that reveal his influence on Maxwell Davies as a composer.

Does it all work?

Yes – but the music of Maxwell Davies, especially in the Brass Quintet, requires some work on the part of the listener to realise its full potential. It has taken me a long time to appreciate the composer’s music, as it can be difficult to connect with emotionally, and there are some complex harmonies. Yet familiarity brings great reward, and the bold writing for brass on such a large scale can be appreciated – especially when the music is quiet. The Wallace Collection are superb in the quintet, their feats of stamina and virtuosity complemented by genuine strength of feeling.

The works for solo instruments are more immediate in their impact, and helped by performances that could not be bettered. John Wallace plays as the composer would wish in the Litany, evoking an outdoor scene in the middle of the ruined Orkney church. Meanwhile Sea Eagle is still more effective, a vivid picture of the magnificent bird and the ultimate freedom it finds on the wing. With an especially reverberant recording in St Marylebone Church Paul Gardham delivers an outstanding performance.

The other pieces are well positioned on the disc and lighten the mood – the Four Voluntaries especially poignant in the simplicity of their arrangement.

Is it recommended?

Yes. This disc is a fine achievement documenting not just one of our greatest living composers but celebrating his habitat too.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here:

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