Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

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Strathclyde Concerto No. 2

For cello and orchestra

audio sample: Strathclyde Concerto No. 2
opus number: 131
completion date: 1987
duration: 33 minutes
movement titles: 1. Moderato
2. Lento
3. Allegro moderato - Lento - Lentissimo
scoring: Cello solo, 2 flutes (2nd + piccolo), 2 oboes, clarinet in A, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, timpani, strings
world premiere: 1 February 1989, City Halls, Glasgow
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, William Conway cello
commissioner: Strathclyde Regional Counciland the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
publisher: Chester Music
category: Chamber orchestra work
programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

If Davies's Cello Concerto has already evoked comparisons with Elgar's, that is perhaps an indication not only of its wealth of solo melody (there is hardly a page where the cello is not singing, or if not that, then dancing), and of its predominantly slow tempos, but also of its musical stature. Even more than the Strathclyde Concerto No. 1, this second is a virtuoso piece for the entire ensemble, which is used almost throughout as a clutch of soloists rather than as a tutti block. The general tone is one of passionate but interior dialogue, especially in the opening Moderato and the slow movement; and though the finale is more extrovert, the work ends back in quietness and rumination.

Deutsche Anmerkungen (kurz)

Wenn das Cellokonzert von Davies bereits zu Vergleichen mit Elgars Werk geführt hat, dann ist dies vielleicht ein Hinweis nicht nur auf den Reichtum der Solomelodien (es gibt kaum eine Seite, wo das Cello nicht singt, oder doch tanzt), und auf das vorwiegend langsame Tempo, sondern auch auf die musikalische Größe des Konzertes. Mehr noch als das erste Strathclyde-Konzert ist dieses zweite ein virtuoses Stück für das gesamte Ensemble, das fast ständig als eine Gruppe von Soloisten und nicht als Tutti-Block eingesetzt wird. Generell herrscht der Ton eines leidenschaftlichen, inneren Dialoges, besonders in der moderato-Eröffnung und dem langsamen Satz. Obwohl das Finale extrovertierter ist, endet das Stück in Ruhe und Besinnlichkeit.

Extended Note I by Stephen Pruslin © 1996

The fundamentally melodic ideas of this concerto have their source in images of bird-flight. Hence the solo cello line that soars above stillness at the work's opening, and again just after the beginning of the slow movement. In the finale, this soaring becomes the swooping and dipping of an aerial dance.

The Moderato first movement contains the 'ghost' of a sonata form, with two tonics, B and B-flat, linked to a dominant of F. The cadenza is punctuated by emphatic gestures in the orchestra - a confrontation all the more powerful for being exceptional in the work's overall context. The conflict is resolved in the coda, where a menacing brass-dominated figure crushes the cello into silence. But in processing down through its registers, the cello contrives an 'interval walk' whereby it summarizes the important harmonic areas of the movement. By the time it is silenced, it has had its say.

The poetics of this concerto relate directly to Schubert's posthumous B-flat Piano Sonata, D.960, in that a lyrical first movement of very moderate tempo is immediately followed by a slow movement. The concerto's Lento second movement is dark and lyrical, but its central section is shot through with the light of a very particular vision: a shoal of mackerel which swam into the bay below Davies's Orkney clifftop house, creating a silvery iridescence of colour and sound. The cello has a short, reflective cadenza near the movement's end.

The final Allegro moderato projects a whirl of rhythm and movement. Eventually a ritardando to Lento effects an implosion, out of which grows a corresponding accelerando which seems destined for a final peroration. But in a poetic coup-de-théâtre, the momentum is capped, and the work ends with a hushed coda, where the cello's 'guitar' pizzicatos - along with tremolos on timpani and strings - contain a final shudder from woodwind and brass.

© Stephen Pruslin

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.

Extended Note II

The Strathclyde Concerto No.2 is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with piccolo and bass clarinet as doubling instruments, plus timpani and strings.

In introducing his Symphony No. 2 to Boston Symphony audiences, the composer wrote: 'At the foot of the cliff before my window, the Atlantic and the North Sea meet, with all the complex interweaving of currents and wave shapes, and the conflicts of weather, that such an encounter implies.' If his symphony was a response to the force of the waves that thundered so near to him, the Strathclyde No.2 is similarly a response to scenes viewed particularly from the top of that lonely cliff. The primary impulse of the concerto is lyrical; the principal melodic ideas are generated (as often happens with Davies) from a visual image, birds in flight - gliding, soaring, or swooping down over the lonely ocean.

At the outset low strings and bass clarinet sustain a quiet B flat, over which the soloist rises in graceful arcs. This opening movement lacks almost entirely the dramatic opposition between soloist and orchestra that is fundamental to the classical conception of concerto. For much of the first movement (Moderato) the instruments of the orchestra provide a coloristic background against which the soloist sings in increasingly rapturous and florid strains. Gradually most of the orchestra joins in, interrupting the solo line with sharp, almost violent punctuation. Nothing daunted, the solo cello resumes its serene song. The brass instruments play an increasing role in the dialogue, the trumpets' first entrance interrupting the solo with rather mysterious, muted sounds, then (after another statement by the solo cello) joining with the horns in a somewhat more vehement interruption. The solo line grows more assertive, sweeping broadly up and down through its range. Only now does the entire orchestra, fortissimo, enter all together, cutting off the soloist's line, then dropping out as the cellist begins an extended cadenza. The brasses, in particular, attempt to interrupt, finally pounding forth accelerating hammerblocks , against which the solo cello descends in broad steps downward through its range and finally stops, pounded into silence by the increasing vigour of the orchestra.

The second movement (Lento) begins with darkly sustained sonorities in the low strings. The solo cello again begins a lyrical song, climbing slowly and then descending, as the low strings begin a trill that initiates a brightening of colour and mood. Soon the upper woodwinds enter against high string tremolos, and the entire ensemble takes on a shimmering brilliance. This sonority too, was inspired by a visual image, the appearance of a shoal of mackerel swimming in the bay below the composer's house, their bodies glittering in the sunshine. The iridescence dies away; a short cadenza leads to the meditative close.

The finale (Allegro moderato) offers a lively and vigorous play of rhythms and colours. The middle part plays with a familiar rhythmic germ, a sharp short-long figure sometimes called the 'Scotch snap', which here, accompanied by a grand whirl passed back and forth between first bassoon and bass clarinet hinting at the skirl of bagpipes, suggests a touch of Scottish folkdance. This builds in a gradual accelerando that seems about to lead into a brilliant climax but instead the soloist again turns inward to a hushed, sustained coda, ending in chill tremolos from the strings and a final spasmodic outburst from the winds.
recording: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, William Conway cello
Unicorn-Kanchana DKP CD 9085
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