Maxwell Davies The Beltane Fire/Caroline Mathilde Suite

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Maxwell Davies The Beltane Fire/Caroline Mathilde Suite

  • Caroline Mathilde
  • (The) Beltane Fire

I don’t suppose that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies would care for his more tuneful, diatonically euphonious works (I’m thinking of pieces like An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise or A Spell for Green Corn) being described as his ‘light music’. The two scores recorded here demonstrate that whatever adjective you choose for them, ‘light’ is the wrong one. Both use that readily approachable style, both were conceived as ballets (though Beltane Fire has not so far been seen on stage), but both are on tragic subjects. Caroline Mathilde concerns the wretched life of George III’s sister, married at 15 against her will to Christian VII of Denmark. Beltane Fire is about the conflict between Calvinism and ancient pagan ritual in the Orkneys.
You would expect a pronounced Scottish element in the ballet score that is actually set in Scotland; in fact a touching and distinctly Scottish melody, associated with the unfortunate princess, recurs throughout the Caroline Mathilde suite as well, though it isn’t heard in its ‘pure’ form until the very end when Caroline is sent into exile. Elsewhere Maxwell Davies shows a remarkable ability to adapt his style – one of his styles, at all events – to the needs of ballet, writing what any ballet-goer will recognize as a real pas-de-deux in the form of a passacaglia which rises to impassioned lyricism and then sombre gravity. Elements of paraphrase rather than pastiche are present in a menacing courtly gavotte and a dance of grotesque violence in which the people mock Caroline’s doomed affair with a court doctor. No less sinister, there is a scene in which a conspiracy against the hated foreign princess is represented in quiet, rather hymn-like music with conventional harmonies (it is also rather like – can this be a coincidence? – one of Carl Nielsen’s patriotic songs): consonance itself curdles and becomes nightmarish. At one time Maxwell Davies would have raucously parodied this; here he no longer needs to.
Similar elements are present in Beltane Fire, and again the destructive elements are not mocked: the music of the minister and the elders whose influence eventually destroys a folk fiddle-player is quiet, often sinisterly so, but it is never caricatured. The folk music references here are overt. Maxwell Davies writes Orkney fiddle tunes of total authenticity, but also expands their expressive range, in this instance to a wild pagan vigour for the fertility dance around the Beltane flames and to the pathos of the fiddler’s son remembering a destroyed way of life as the curtain falls. As Maxwell Davies’s major concert works move closer towards tonal reference so the pieces in his other style take on deeper seriousness and eloquence. Could the two be moving towards each other? Excellent performances, as by now we would expect, from the Maxwell Davies/BBC Philharmonic partnership; the recordings are clean and vivid.'

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017