Continuing my exploration of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies I’ve been listening to a 1992 recording of a couple of very different pieces inspired by Orkney. The first is Black Pentecost from 1979. It’s somewhere between an orchestral song cycle and a symphony inspired by the threat to start mining uranium ore on Orkney (which also produced the very lovely piano piece Farewell to Stromness). It’s a four movement work for orchestra, mezzo-soprano and baritone and it’s uncompromisingly modern in idiom. The text depicts environmental destruction and decay and “the Controller”s increasingly strident justification of it as necessary to “human progress”. It begins with orchestral music evocative of the unspoiled landscape but becomes increasingly tougher with menacing brass and percussion and screechy vocals from the baritone before collapsing into a matter of fact description of environmental degradation.
The 1973 piece Stone Litany ‘Runes from a House of the Dead’ is shorter and inspired by runes left by 11th and 12th century Vikings when they plundered the ancient site of Maeshowe. The sung language is an extinct dialect of Old Norse and it really serves as more of a texture in the music. It’s quite complex; by turns elegiac and menacing, but to me it effectively evokes a place that seems to exist both in and out of time in a liminal space between reality and imagination.
The performances are by Della Jones and David Wilson-Johnson with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer so can, I suppose, be considered definitive. The spacious and nicely balanced recording was made at Studio 7 in New Broadcasting House Manchester in September 1992. The CD sleeve contains a link for the librettos but it’s long dead and I don’t know of any other source for the texts.
Catalogue number: Naxos Classics 8572359