Recordings of the Piano Sonata, by Peter Maxwell Davies

Apart from infrequent performances and broadcasts the way most listeners will have heard this music is more likely to be from one or more of the three released commercial albums. There is much to admire about each of these recordings, and personally I am keen to hear as many inerpretations as possible for myself. In about a year I hope my own studio recording will be available too! The release is likely to programme Maxwell Davies’ piece alongside Beethoven’s Sonata 31 in A flat major (opus 110) and Ravel’s Miroirs.

This post is therefore an opportunity for dialog about these existing recordings (and any others yet to be discovered)! Given or approximated timings for each movement are discussed in another post.  Where possible there are links to online sellers.


Stephen Pruslin  Auracle Records LP AUC 1005 (1982)




img_3236David Holzman, Centaur CRC 2102 (1993)


Richard Casey, Peter Maxwell Davies Piano Works 1949-2009 Prima Facie (2013)


VI: Scherzo Molto

Firstly I will be working on the 6th movement which I remember well, but which usually receives a somewhat more relaxed tempo than indicated in the score. My question is what is the minimum tempo for the pulse to dance like a true scherzo?  I must aim for a strict quaver = 100 or more, (where 70 is technically comfortable!) but semi-quaver quintuplet grupetti within indicated quaver of 132 will surely become grace note clusters; and using that more percussive technique loses the full harmonic colour of the musical layer. The first note of each group has to sing (mini accent) for rhythmic clarity, and the runs are to be even, soft and not splashed. I am informed by remembering the composer’s insistence that his 2nd Symphony scherzo was played at full speed, the Boston S.O. Musicians under Ozawa refused the ‘impossibility’ until a compromise saved its premiere, while the BBC philharmonic got a lot closer to the mark. Thank goodness the recapitulation is identical for the runs!

Piano Sonata (1981) Peter Maxwell Davies

I listened to this piece firstly when broadcast in 1981 as my memory serves, featuring dedicatee Stephen Pruslin from the Bath Festival, and immediately preordered the sheet music, (though frustratingly, Chester delayed publication until 1983). By then Stephen Pruslin’s premiere recording had also been made available, and although I had no chance of learning such a difficult work in time for my graduation recital, I studied the piece (particularly the first and second movements) right away.

By 1987 I had performed the full work twice and earlier previewed the first movement in concerts (1985). I still have a recording of my full performance at Manchester University for reference, and listening to this again nearly 30 years later, it spurred me to relearn the piece with the intention of recording the most persuasive and successful interpretation I can, and programming it alongside Beethoven and Ravel. My  project is intended as an artist’s contribution to a piece that deserves an evolving performance tradition, and I also hope the composer will feel that my full hearted endeavour conveys his own vision successfully.

This blog will follow my progress and thinking over several months, enabling me to focus on the work movement by movement as I record those studio takes, destined for a final production recording. It is a very thorough (and non economic!) method of working on a very difficult piece, but allows progress and ambition to be uncompromised by any deadlines.

The Piano Sonata of Peter Maxwell Davies is a necessarily complicated work, attempting the most profound expressions of musical argument, heard in ever present conflict.  In other words the many delights of texture, pianism and modal colour are placed among constant shadows of contradiction, darkness and anxiety. As with much of the composer’s most serious music, the sonata is set in a troubled world, brought closer to the listener by its evocation of naturalistic and powerful seascapes, fertile organic growth and decay.

Musical examples from the score are brief excerpts for research purposes only and copyright of Chester Music.

I value any feedback, and discussions about this piece.

BP 2016