Maxwell Davies
Symphony No. 1 (1976)


Among the first impressions of this symphony are its distinctive colors and the might and sheer gorgeousness of sound. The timbres are often of an icy, crystalline quality, driven by dissonant brass, the use of high-pitched percussion (prominently glockenspiel and celesta), and high-pitched violins that quite often play tremoli. There are many woodwind sounds of an icy quality as well, yet there are also moments of seductive warmth, in which particularly flute and alto flute tend to have a prominent role. In general, and also in this symphony, Maxwell Davies' colorful writing for woodwinds is exceptional. Loosely interspersed timpani strokes enhance the power of sound at select moments, and they help define the sound signature right at the start of the music. In some passages double basses are prominent; they are mostly plucked rather than bowed. The sounds of the symphony are harmonically rich and differentiated, also when they are dissonant. There are alluring moments of mysteriousness of sound as well. 

Structurally this is enormously abstract music, with basically no melodies and hardly any themes. Rather, it mostly features mere gestures it paints with sound and gesture. There are expansive surges of energy and tension in this mostly rather slowly moving music, and the music often propels forward in broad strokes, not seldom with wide interval leaps. Yet there is also a lot of filigree and fine detail in some spots the sound even seems 'hyper-detailed' in a great way. The abstract nature of the music is underlined by an open-ended narrative, where in each movement the music ends up rather removed from where it started. This structural characteristic, organically developing, is an arresting feature often found in the composer's instrumental music, up to the splendid string quartets that he wrote more than a quarter of a century later.

Yet while the music is abstract, and features a mostly gestural narrative, the development of the music in time combined with the gorgeous sound is powerful and compelling. It may not be ideal for those in need of melodies, but it may be thrilling for adventurous listeners who are open to any quality experience in music. This symphony, inspired and already fully mature, is the first of a string of symphonies that in my opinion make Maxwell Davies one of the important symphonists of the 20th century. 

The first movement starts out with music that features slow moving brass chords, underlined by powerful timpani strokes. The sounds evoke for me giant sheets of ice clashing and grinding against one another. There are several "windows" in the music where it becomes more intimate and enriched with filigree; after the fourth of such windows (at around 6 min.) the music enters a new phase. Starting from a restrained sound level, long-stretched sound planes move forward, initially featuring sustained woodwind chords of complex harmony and color that, while dissonant, are intensely glowing. Very gradually, over several minutes,  the music builds up energy once more, and finally flows into a somewhat turbulent ending.

The second movement that eventually will develop into "a scherzo of a kind" (the composer), begins on a mysterious note. It features a series of surges of motion and energy. The first surge, in brass, is reminiscent of the music of the opening movement (yet in fact it is the current movement that was written first, see the composer's remarks in the CD booklet). A particularly furious surge (at around 4 min.) begins with strings and concludes with piercing brass. The organic nature of the cumulative build-up of tremendous force within the shortest time span is stunning. Some of the upwellings do not rise to high volume, yet you can always feel the tension of the driving force underneath. The mightiest swelling of the music comes towards the end, in a passage that produces a whirl-wind like howling of strings, supported by brass. There are several more subdued, partially warmer sounding, "interludes" between surges, some of them exquisitely colored by woodwinds.

The third movement (adagio) once more begins with a mysterious tone, featuring gorgeous sounds in lower strings overlaid with icy, and later warmer, woodwind chords. Slowly the music rises to higher register, and again moves with swelling of motion and force that now develops at a very measured pace and in a restrained and wave-like manner. The underlying slow-burning tension is gripping. Eventually, at about 8 minutes, the music returns to sound (brass, timpani) and gestures reminiscent of the first movement. From there strings mount the most expansive surge in this movement, flowing into pronounced successions of interval leaps with legato double (sometimes triple) notes on each pitch and energetic emphasis on the repeat strokes. This passage is later echoed on a more intimate level in woodwinds, and with that the movement finally subsides. 

In this music even tempi are abstract, and differences in tempi are often defined by just the speed of surface activity; the background of slower-moving sound planes in the 'fast' movements is rather reminiscent in character of the motion in the slow movements. This is again evident in the last movement, "Presto", which really does not feel like very fast music at all (the first movement of rather moderate overall tempo was a "Presto" as well!). Often it rather moves like a viscous gel, on which fast flurries of activity are overlaid. Particularly notable are the frantic figures in trumpets in the middle of the movement, later on a fury of celli, and at the end a meteor shower of activity in high-pitched percussion against a mounting crescendo of the rest of the orchestra.


The symphony is coupled on the Naxos re-release of the Collins recording with the much lighter "Mavis in Las Vegas", a humoristic orchestral composition that in contrast to the symphony is very melodic: yes, the composer is more than capable of writing "regular" melodies when he intends to. At first the music appears mostly as a potpourri of different show tunes (not surprising, given the title), yet strictly spoken it is a theme with variations. The theme is introduced at the beginning in the solo violin. The music is situated in different localities of Las Vegas (see CD booklet), and changes in character accordingly. Delightful and well done. 

Note: in order to fully enjoy the (truly excellent) deep bass in the symphony, you may need to turn up your subwoofer higher than usual; for "Mavis in Las Vegas" regular levels suffice.

Albrecht Moritz 2012