Second Movement: Scherzo:Vivace

The second movement of the Piano Sonata is instantly attractive. like a traditional scherzo the music contrasts with the often dense first movement, and takes shape from the start as a lively left hand solo which soon reveals itself as the lower voice in a rhythmic two-part invention, full of particularly jazzy cross rhythms and with a particularly strong modal feel. There are related tempo pulses switched between by means of subdivision, proportion and time signature. One of many things that the movement is is an exercise in tempo modulation, with the performer having an exacting rhythmic task, and the listeners expectations constantly wrong footed by the alternating apparent beats. This second movement is wonderful to play and is often the first part of the Maxwell Davies Sonata I would introduce to a student, or fellow musician, to demonstrate the pianistic accomplishment of the sonata.

The counterpoint is full of cross rhythms, reminiscent of the polyrhythmic virtuosity of a notable jazz drummer, and the medoldic lines full of leaps of sevenths and ninths. This two part counterpoint is a dance of reflections around the central pitches, achieving the kind of register and intervallic balance one might hear on the surface of a dodecaphonic movement by Anton Webern , though never straying too far from modal centres in the Maxwell Davies.

An enlightening analysis by Alecsandra Vojcic, of this movement is made in chapter 7 of her dissertation ‘Rhythm as Form: Rhythmic Hieracrchy in Later Twentieth Century Piano Music’ (New York City University 2007) and discusses the very interesting polyrhythmic structure. For those fascinated by the relationship of changing beat and tempo perception, brought about through playful compositional means this publication is excellent.

 For the listener the whole movement is thus winningly teasing and joyous, following a ternary shape with a skittish central ‘trio’ section which introduces trills and decorative runs mostly in a higher register, before two part cross rhythms reappear in the final part, with each descendant dancing phrase eventually settling gracefully via a perfectly balanced tritone interval of F and B.

…More to come….


PMD Obituary

Peter Maxwell Davies died today, and therefore all my work to record his Piano Sonata is now also to his memory. The last time I spoke with the composer while standing in the lobby of the Great Hall at Dartington in 2009, where he had been listening to his string quartet “Lighthouses of Orkney” in rehearsal, was well before he was first diagnosed with leukaemia. It’s sad that the illness returned and his life came to an end today, though not unexpected in view of such a serious condition.
In that morning of August 2009 I had been speaking and thanking him for returning to the Summer School that he once transformed, and which now welcomed him back, in spite of the cultural changes that had dumbed down some of the audience expectations in the meantime. His ‘The Lighthouse’ opera in the Barn Theatre that year was overwhelmingly popular with performances completely oversubscribed, while his very challenging chamber music and languid choral pieces intrigued an interested, but often much smaller audience during the evening concerts. His introductions to every piece were welcomed for their charm as well as content.
I told him enthusiastically of my adventures in primary education with his children’s works (Kirkwall Shopping Somgs, The Rainbow) and my performing in music theatre pieces (Missa Super l’homme Armé, Eight Songs for a Mad King). I recalled previous meetings, and all the signed scores I have kept and the premieres I had attended. Then finally, just as we parted, I remembered to say, as a bit of an afterthought, that I had performed his Piano Sonata during the mid 1980s. Peter Maxwell Davies’ raised his expressive eyebrows at that moment and said nothing, as if the casual mentioning of such a serious, difficult, and rarely performed piece felt, even to him, preposterous within the scope of our conversation! I would think that the Sonata, surely among his most uncompromising compositions, was of special importance in pursuing the composer’s greatest ambitions. I would have dearly loved him to hear me play it, with the dedication I have, but introducing it to new listeners and audiences is a privilege that remains.

BP 14th March 2016

Classical Models in a Modernist World

When Peter Maxwell Davies wrote ‘Symphony’ (1976) later retitled as his  Symphony no.1, and only the first of ten written to date, it seemed to signify a new period in the composer’s oeuvre where he would explicitly tackle the late evolutions of form of the classical period, in a way that historically all progressive composers had abandoned. The ultimate extensions of tonality, bordering on atonality, and the compression of multi movement forms into one organic processes and the re-emergence of modal and textural sensibilities, (coupled with the growing influence of the orient on European tastes); had already forced musical development into new paths over a period of a century. A work titled as ‘Symphony’ might have led some to suspect a neoclassical cop-out.

Having listened to many of his works, I already Knew PMD uses such evolutionary ‘dead-ends’ as creative opportunities. Instead of ignoring or simplifying contradicting ideas he sets them in opposition or ironic commentary, including presenting such incongruity simultaneously in a layered fashion. These dramatic parodies and ironies that worked so dramatically in the clash of modernism with early music and also with popular forms (eg. St Thomas Wake, 8 Songs for a Mad King etc.), now led to the deconstruction of classical forms within multiple layers. In the Piano Sonata, Stephen Pruslin had indicated PMD had pitted sonata development against the baroque suite to set up a duplex form. This creativity is not from an aesthetic that believes in and presents easy answers, but the same brave and uncompromised compositional technique that reveals a harder truth of ever present contradiction. The unreconcilable ideas are as welcome within this music as sublime moments of resolution.

Charles Senior’s poem that prefaces the sonata, also seems to accept a creativity resulting from the opposition of life and death, in the imagery and symbolism of the ‘cries of gulls’ (are muted by) ‘croak of Raven’.

Music that contains such profound ideas in juxtaposition is not only achieved through the composer’s highly structured orchestration in his Symphony(s), but is also attempted here in the separation of lines of material accomplished between two hands at the piano. The challenge of clearly playing all necessary counterpoint can be considerable, but in doing this the whole textural wholeness of the music mustn’t be lost.

PMD wrote the sonata for piano with as sensuous an approach as any of his symphonies. All uncommon harmonies, clashing modal lines and highly referential melodic line, is set within the naturalistic textures that create the hyper-impressionistic sounds that are always recognisable in his music. Without the earlier pianistic developments of Messiaen, Berio, Boulez and other notable avant-garde colourists, (to say nothing of Debussy, Ravel and Bartok!) the Piano Sonata could not be described with any thoroughness. Having the notes under the fingers and separating the thematic ideas, would not in itself bring the music the changing colour, emotion and richness it has. This impressionistic textural subtlety is the glue that can hold the formal detail together, in the same way diatonic familiarity did in earlier times.
For the pianist this presents a challenge of virtuosity, for direct communication with the listener.

Tempi in 4 Recordings

Peter Maxwell Davies is himself a pianist, and although he has often written for outstanding musicians (most notably the legendary virtuoso, John Ogdon) it is safe to say that he carefully and purposefully marks his scores as he imagines they should sound. He also has a reputation of uncompromised expectations of his performers, and through writing such music as he does, extended technique evolves and is stretched to new levels. It is also true that tempo is just one musical means of many to an end, and the experience of the music as a whole is more important. The interpreter is wise to consider each indicated tempo, but more importantly understand the fuller aim of the composer. An interpretation will need to strike a balance between technical solutions, score directions, accuracy, and personal discoveries. I think the Italianate descriptors before each movement or section are key indicators of what the audience must hear. If a different tempo better expresses a cantabile, allegro Ma non troppo, or the rhythmic and textural clarity of the composition in the particular acoustic, with the particular instrument, then the choice should be sensitive to that.
It is useful to compare the recorded tempi with those indicated in the score in a general way, by measuring the durations of each interpretation, movement by movement. The measured duration of a movement is directly proportional to the tempi used, even though the two terms are not synonyms. All of these seven movements maintain a consistent divisor beat throughout (apart from a few specific rallentandi, pauses, introductions or codas). There is no supposition of a qualitative comparison to be drawn from the following table, but the approach of each pianist can be better understood with a comparison. The table shows the differences between a duration derived from the score indications (approximated due to a few rallentandi and short pauses), and the three commercial recordings and a privately recorded public performance of my own. Stephen Pruslin’s LP timings were measured during a transfer to tape.

The first observation is those durations I have calculated from the indicated markings.  The composer’s tempi are higher, not just as regards the ambitions of the two scherzo movements, (2 and 6) but in fact, for every movement, including the slower 3rd and 5th, where purely technical demands are not great. The final movement has such a quick indication in relation to every recording, that one wonders whether that speed could ever be attained and whether is even an ‘error’ by printer or composer. The dedicatee Stephen Pruslin follows a metronome mark much nearer to 60 than the indicated 160!

Relationships of tempi

I think that the more important observation is how the duration of movements relate to each other, and such proportional architecture is easy to visualise in the chart below. Every recording follows a similar pattern of these relationships, regardless that some have slower tempi in general e.g. Pruslin, and others quicker overall e.g. Holzman. There are some exceptions ro note which, interestingly, draw my attention to parts of the sonata where problems of interpretation are particularly apparent; with the fourth, central, tripartite ‘Cantabile con moto’ raising the most questions.

Of the four pianists it is only certain that Stephen Pruslin used a score (manuscript or fair copy) other than the first printed Edition, so it is quite possible the metronome marks were not already fixed, or were different. Furthermore as the dedicatee working closely with the composer Pruslin will have had opportunities to discuss the work in detail prior to his performances and recording.

More to follow…