MAXWELL DAVIES The Last Island
A keen sense of time and place – and increasingly of man’s transient existence within it – forms an important theme in Maxwell Davies’s late chamber music. Seven of the works contained on this excellent recording by the Hebrides Ensemble were written during the composer’s final decade and each one engages with this subject in different ways.
The Last Island (2009), for string sextet, is one of several works inspired by the unique atmosphere of Orcadian island life, which Davies experienced for over half his life. Melodic fragments are caught up in the music’s opening ebb and flow like jetsam and flotsam on the shore, reflecting, in the composer’s words, ‘the wonder of ever-changing light of sea and sky, yet strangely threatened with menace, even on the brightest of days’.
The work ends with a fragment of plainsong, reminding us that man’s imprint is never far away in Davies’s music. The String Trio (2008) also concludes with a quotation, this time of traditional Orkney fiddle music. However, a subdued ending is only reached via a dissonant and tortuous journey reflecting the work’s harrowing subject matter, composed in memory of 26‑year-old Karen Aim, murdered while holidaying in New Zealand.
The transient nature of time and place is brought into sharper focus in the febrile temporal distortions and dislocations of the Two Nocturnes (2010), for piano quintet, which sees the composer come face-to-face with his own mortality. Its shadows cut across the shafts of light that illuminate the Violin Sonata, while lurking beneath the soaring lines of the late Oboe Quartet (2012), brilliantly controlled and sustained in Emanuel Abbühl’s performance. Even more profoundly, death’s valedictory cadence punctuates the closing moments of a movement for string quartet that sadly remains incomplete.
The unique character of Davies’s late style is grasped and understood in the Hebrides Ensemble’s highly nuanced performances, described by the composer as ‘a crew of a ship that comes into harbour now and again with supplies. And not just the bare essentials. There are always surprises, little treats that one isn’t expecting.