Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Strathclyde Concerto No. 9

For six woodwind players and string orchestra

opus number: 170
completion date: 1994
duration: 25 minutes
movement titles: 1. Moderato
2. Allegro
3. Lentissimo
(played without a break)
scoring: Piccolo solo, alto flute solo, cor anglais solo, Eb clarinet solo, bass clarinet solo, contrabassoon solo, violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, double bass
world premiere: 10 February 1995, City Halls, Glasgow
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, David Nicholson piccolo, Elizabeth Dooner alto flute, Maurice Checker cor anglais, Lewis Morrison Eb clarinet, Ruth Ellis bass clarinet, Alison Green contrabassoon
commissioner: Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
dedication: David Nicholson, Elizabeth Dooner, Maurice Checker, Lewis Morrison, Ruth Ellis, Alison Green and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
publisher: Chester Music
category: Chamber orchestra work
programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

The solo group consists of a sextet of the woodwind instruments which are normally doubled with more regular members of the orchestra: these six strangers, now brought to the fore, are piccolo and alto flute, cor anglais, Eb and bass clarinets and contrabassoon. They make a motley group, diverse in colour as in register, and one of the tasks of the piece sets itself is to have them blend and cohere, both together as an ensemble and in partnership with the string orchestra (which itself is used with unusual variety and subtlety). Another evident task of the work is to provide fine solos for each member of the woodwind sextet: bright dances for the piccolo, recitatives for the alto flute, a stoical song from the contrabassoon in the extreme bass. The work is cast as a single movement, which begins in the composer's first-movement style of rapid regeneration. This is interrupted by slow interventions, including one for divided strings which gives rise to a sextuple cadenza for the soloists. Out of this comes a slow movement, or sequence of short slow movements, followed by a dancing finale with its own slow episodes. Altogether this is music of songs and dances, heavily tinged with Scottish rhythms and tonalities: one might think of a magic bagpipe, having six chanters and a drone of variegated string texture.

Deutsche Anmerkungen (kurz)

Die Sologruppe besteht aus einem Sextett von Holzblasinstrumenten, die normalerweise durch bekanntere Orchesterstimmen verdoppelt werden. Bei diesen nun in den Vordergrund getretenen sechs Fremden handelt es sich um Piccolo- und Altflöte, Englisch Horn, Es- und Kontrabaßklarinette sowie Kontrafagott. Das Werk macht es sich zur Aufgabe, diese in Klangfarbe und Tonlage bunte Schar zu verschmelzen, sowohl als Ensemble als auch in Partnerschaft mit dem Streichorchester (das selbst ungewöhnlich vielseitig und subtil eingesetzt wird). Zugleich werden jedem Mitglied des Holzbläsersextetts beneidenswerte Soli gegeben: fröhliche Tänze für die Piccoloflöte, Rezitative für die Altflöte, ein stoisches Lied vom Kontrafagott im tiefsten Baß. Das Werk ist einsätzig angelegt und beginnt in dem für die Kopfsätze des Komponisten typischen Stil der schnellen Regeneration. Langsame Interventionen bringen Unterbrechungen, zum Beispiel eine für geteilte Streicher, die in eine sechsfache Kadenz für die Solisten führt. Hieraus erwächst ein langsamer Satz bzw. eine Reihe kurzer langsamer Sätze, gefolgt von einem tänzerischen Finale mit eigenen langsamen Episoden. Lied und Tanz dominieren in dieser Musik, stark gefärbt von schottischen Rhythmen und Tonalitäten - als hörte man einen magischen Dudelsack, mit sechs Spielpfeifen und einer Bordunpfeife in schillernder Streichertextur.

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin © 1996

The Strathclyde Concerto No. 9 is the penultimate work in Maxwell Davies' cycle of ten concertos for the players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and it fulfils several potentialities implanted earlier in the cycle. Two of the previous Strathclydes are double concertos: No. 3 for Horn and Trumpet and No. 5 for Violin and Viola. Each can be heard as Davies's highly personal reinterpretation of the classical sinfonia concertante, while the violin and viola soloists of No. 5 specifically suggest a 1991 bicentenary tribute to Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante K. 364.

The Strathclyde No. 9 increases its soloists from two to six, and in so doing reveals an even wider genealogy: it descends both from Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante K. 297b for quadruple wind, and from Davies's own Sinfonia Concertante (1982) for wind quintet and string orchestra. But the sextuple concertino of the present work deals with another important piece of unfinished business: it elevates to soloistic status the auxiliary woodwinds, who usually achieve a high profile only as orchestral instruments. If the two previous Strathclyde Concertos present unexpected leading roles for those character actors, the double bass and the bassoon, then Davies here decrees that six orchestral Cinderellas are going to enjoy their evening at the ball.

The sextet consists of piccolo, alto flute, cor anglais, Eflat and bass clarinets, contrabassoon. Davies deploys their single and multiple qualities with obvious relish. Any of the six instruments may find itself the subject of a 'jazz break' slanted to its particular temperament. The obvious highs or lows of the individual instruments are exploited, but so too are the subtleties of their opposite registers. Duets also abound. Sometimes the pairings are timbral (piccolo/alto, Eflat/bass), sometimes they are registral (piccolo/E-flat, bass clarinet/contrabassoon), and occasionally they are almost spatial (piccolo/contrabassoon). The two low 'villains', who frequently acted as the solo bassoon's henchmen in 'Strathclyde No. 8, are here presented as a party pair in their own right, to whom Davies seems to have applied Dickens's characterization of the cello as a 'melodious grumbler'. From these duets, the woodwind writing expands flexibly through trios, quartets and quintets, until the full sextet is revealed at key moments as a complete musical layer that contains within itself the dialogue between solo and tutti .

A string orchestra appears earlier in the cycle in the Strathclyde Concerto No. 5, where it provides a rich mahogany sound-picture of which the solo violin and viola act as the red highlights. In No. 9, the strings are of course used to set the sharply etched wind sextet into relief. However, acting as ripieno to the wind concertino is only one of their functions. Inside the string tutti, a whole range of light and shade unfolds, taking in an entirely independent dialogue between solo and tutti, and branching out to extraordinary textures such as the 'wall' of arch-shaped arpeggios in which the first violins, and then the seconds, are divided into six real parts each. It is fair to say that the detailed attention Maxwell Davies has lavished on the orchestral part of this concerto would easily have satisfied the demands of a work for string orchestra alone.

Perhaps most fascinating is the work's formal design. Cast in one continuous musical span, its 'mosaic' structure is directly related to Davies's contiguous Symphony No. 5, much of which is conceived as a dialogue between fast and slow music. In the symphony, dark or luminous 'pools' of slow music, in which a moment is magnified into an infinity, represent a new and important 'fermata principle' for Davies. In the Strathclyde No. 9, he has re-focused this so as to take advantage of the opportunities of concerto discourse.

The work begins with a Moderato introduction that soon releases into a main Allegro . From here on, however, there are no fewer than twenty-six alternations between the perpetually evolving allegro and a continuum of Andantes, Adagios and Lentos . In the concluding Lentissimo, the wind sextet has the last word, while the 'parenthetical' slow music is revealed as the concerto's 'significant opposing principle'.

© Stephen Pruslin

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.
composer’s note: The ninth concerto in the series was designed as an opportunity for those members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who had hitherto had no chance to shine as soloists to do so - hence the unusual 'concertante' line-up of piccolo, alto flute, cor anglais, clarinet in E flat, bass clarinet and contrabassoon, with string orchestra.

The work has basic material in common with a short work composed for the choir of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, called Mercurius. The colours of the concerto were inspired by the infinite variety of shading within the winter greys of my Orkney home, where all light is refracted and reflected back from the sea three hundred feet below the house; this - particularly in November - makes me think of transparent, translucent or opaque Mercury, ranging from a cloud-shadowed near-purple to the brightest, suddenly sparkling silver. I believe this will be clearest in the slow, quiet sections which constantly interrupt the concerto's flow, opening up like a 'laconismus lachrymabundus' in stormy weather.

There is one movement only. A slow introduction heralds a fast exposition, closed by a short lento featuring a high contrabassoon solo. The development is characterized by sudden 'cadenzas' for the soloists and leads not to the usual varied reprise of the exposition but to a slow and gently rocking 'lullaby' for all the soloists, standing in for a slow movement proper. The quick recapitulation that follows is capped by an 'apotheosis', where the strings have the melody in unison, while the soloists decorate this with swirling 'snowstorm' figurations. The ending is not in the opening key of F major but relaxes into D flat, the major version of the arrival point of the work's first long paragraph.
recording: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, David Nicholson piccolo, Elizabeth Dooner alto flute, Maurice Checker cor anglais, Josef Pacewicz E flat clarinet, Ruth Ellis bass clarinet, Alison Green contrabassoon
Collins Classics 14592
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