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.
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The Strathclyde Concerto 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 that cycle. Two of the previous ‘Strathclyde’s’ are double concertos: No.3 for Horn and Trumpet and NO.5 for Violin and Viola. Each can be heard as Davies’ highly personal reinterpretation of the classical 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.279b for quadruple wind, and from Davies’ own eponymous work (1982) for wind quartet 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, E-flat 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 “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 paintings are timbral (piccolo/alto, E-flat/bass), sometimes they are registral (piccolo/ E-flat, bass clarinet/contrabassoon) and occasionally they are almost spatial (piccolo/conttrabassoon). 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; characterisation of the cello as a “melodious grumbler”. From these duets, the woodwind writing expands flexibly through riots, 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, 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 work for string orchestra alone.
Perhaps most fascinating is the work’s formal design. Cast in one continuous span, its “mosaic” structure is directly related to Davies’ recent 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 “femata principle” for Davies. In the Strathclyde No.9, he has refocused this so as taking advantage of the opportunities of concerto discourse.
The work begins with a moderato introduction that soon releases into a main Allegro. From her on, however there are 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 revealed as the Concerto’s “significant opposing principle”.
© Stephen Pruslin 1995