What a little gem of a disc this is, making up in density (and intensity!) what it lacks in length. Sir Peter maxwell Davies has written some fine chamber music in recent times, as anybody who knows his Naxos Quartets will attest, but two of the four works here go back to the mid-1970s - ave Maria Stella and Psalm 124. Dove, Star-Folded and Economics of Scale date from 2000 and 2002 respectively. They are all given fine, committed performances by the chamber ensemble Gemini under its director and clarinettist Ian Mitchell. As if the quality of the music and the perfornances weren't enough, the listener is also provided with a superb set of booklet notes by the University of Surrey's Chrisopher Mark. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Dr Mark speak at a function at the University of Western Australia: he seemed especially adept at reducing complex musical ideas to their essentials, and so he is here. Psal 124, written in 1974, is subtitled 'Motet for Instrumental Ensemble after David Peebles, John Fethy and an anonymous Scottish Source.' It's scored for flute / alto flute, violin, bass clarinet, glockenspiel, marimba, violin, viola, cello and guitar. The beautiful theme is introduced by bass clarinet; gradually other instruments appear, the whole recalling a Renaissance viol fantasia before the surprising arrival of flute and glockenspiel bearing an unmistakably modern musical message. Two further sessions explore the archaic material i9n a similarly imaginative vein; two recitatives for solo guitar provide the glue that holds the panels of this attractive triptych together. Dove, Star-Folded is dedicated to the memory of Sir Steven Runciman and is based on a Greek Byzantine hymn. Scored for violin, viola and cello, the work shifts between rhythmically lively passages and more meditative moments while utilizing a vast array of effects before ending in an elegiac haze. Economies of Scale uses the same instrumentation Messiaen employed for his Quartet for the End of Time -clarient, piano, violin and cello - while being based on a scale from one of Maxwell Davies''s own string quartets, written in 1961. Again, the shifting moods are dazzling, from dance to song, while the skilled use of varying textures is impressive. The last work is also the one that gives the disc its title; it is also the longest and most complex. Here, Mark is excellent in explaining Maxwell Davies's compositional method, in which a 9 x 9 magic square generates a pitch /duration matrix. Each of the piece's nine sections comprises a central 'cantus firmus' (the result of taking a particular path through the magic square) around which other lines weave. Scored for flute, alto flute, clarinet, marimba, piano, viola and cello, it's a multi-faceted work full of many wonderful moments, like the abrupt thinning of texture in the fourth section, a mesmerizing marimba cadenza in the sixth section and the ghostly singing of the wind and string instruments over a continuous yet flexible pulse from the marimba in the concluding section.
As already mentioned, the performancers are all first-rate...
Robert Levett, International Record Review, 5/1/2008
One of Davies's most profound and luminous works, inspired by Beethoven's late quartets as well as plainsong. Fiercely difficult to play, it comes over here with ease and brilliance.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 12/1/2009