The solo flute here is kept in high profile by the absence from the orchestra not only of other flutes, but also of violins and oboes; in addition, the trumpets are used sparingly (they do not, for instance, play in the slow movement), so that for much of the time the flute is playing against a mellow ensemble of clarinets, horns, bassoons and low strings. If this is, nevertheless, one of Davies's most open-spirited pieces, that comes partly from the ready flights of the soloist, partly from its glockenspiel accompaniments in the outer movements (replaced by ticking claves in the Adagio), partly from the dancing character of so much of the music, and partly from the harmonic clarity, in a light region not far from C minor.
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Partly as a palate-cleanser after the rich string sonority of the Strathclyde Concerto No.5 and partly in response to the uniquely ‘open’ sound of the flute, Maxwell Davies has invented musical material consonant with the solo instrument’ s quintessential personality and timbre. But this should not be taken at face value: Davies was inspired by Pieter Brughel’s encyclopaedic painting, Children’s Games (1560) to express the kind of artless play that contains serious ritual and psychological meanings underneath. A line of Hugo von Hoffmansthal could stand as motto depths of a particular work, he replied “They are in the surface”.
The first movement had an Andante introduction that immediately presents a simple tune on the solo flute with a harmonisation suggesting C minor-major in the orchestra. This material will take on folk-line quality in the finale, but here it presents itself merely as “factual”. A transition featuring a tintinnabulation of flute and glockenspiel (a sound-image first encountered in Davie’s Solita (1969) for flute and musical box) leads to the movement’s main Allegro moderato, a pristine sonata movement with a perky first subject a second subject underpinned by tremolando cellos. The development has three distinct phases of increasing floridity for the solo flute, but the forward propulsion of the music delays any real sense of recapitulation until the cadenza, where the theme of the slow introduction makes an unprecedented and richly satisfying reappearance. The cadenza proceeds to a brilliant middle section, at whose climax the introductory theme descends steeply into a very brief coda.
The Adagio begins with an introduction featuring the ticking of the claves. The solo flute enters and dominates the first main section. The middle section sets the flute into dialogue with a bassoon punctuated by a dotted figure in horns. The first section returns with a much ornate flute line against the continuing bassoon cantilena. Finally, a low timpani tremolo and the return of the claves signal a postlude in which the flute soars aloft.
The Allegro finale begins with a four-note tag on the solo flute, heard in passing during the first movement and reminiscent of the ‘BACH’ (B-flat A C B – natural) motive that has engaged the imagination of numerous composers. The first section is lively and dance-like, but it eventually gives way to a new section, accompanied by the tambourine, in which the solo flute sings a ‘folk’ melody that incorporates the four-note motive. This tune is denied its proper sense of arrival because it appears on the ‘wrong’ harmonic level. The dance begins again, but the four-note motive eventually crystallizes –out in the brass, en route to a short flute solo that exhales the energy of the entire movement in preparation for the return of the ‘folk’ tune. Slower, and unaccompanied by the glockenspiel, this is at last revealed as the theme for which the finale has been searching all along. If the thematic game has been a version of Blind Man’s Buff and the harmonic game ‘black notes versus white notes’, then the children’s playground in which they have taken place is the harmonic field between C and F#, an ambiguity which is left hanging deliciously at the concerto’s close.
The solo flute is kept in prominence through the absence of orchestral flutes, violins and oboes. The trumpets are judiciously and are silent throughout the slow movement. For the second time in the Strathclyde cycle, Maxwell Davies includes other percussion other than timpani,. But chooses instruments (glockenspiel, claves, and tambourine) that suggest a toy symphony.
© Stephen Pruslin 1992.