Clarity and Interpretation in the First Movement

As I have already mentioned in another article, the composers metronome indications need to be evaluated alongside the descriptive indications of tempi given in the score, and with regard to realistic possibilities of technique. The pulse of mm=76 for the first movement is hugely ambitious as regards technique, and possibly erroneous when it comes to interpretation, as we are presented with an opening Sostenuto in 3/4 and 5/8 followed by a compound signature of 14/16 (7+7/16) marked Allegro ma non troppo, plus a coda where the metronome mark is equivalent once again to each crotchet. Whatever tempo is actually chosen by the pianist it is at least clear that the tempo relationship between these three parts should be equal and constant.

How I have arrived at a suitable approach to these tempi for my own recording is discussed below.

The opening Sostenuto comprises ten bars which contain not only the essential tonal and modal material of the first movement but also, as one might expect in the twentieth century, for the whole Sonata. Previous interpreters have tended to slow down this short opening section [bar 1-10] considerably, to give it due weight as a praeludium perhaps, and to indulge the legato phrasing in a poetic way at the low dynamic. The contrast thereafter from bar 11 in the movement could hardly be greater, where stillness and transparent texture is suddenly replaced by a dense and feverish polyphony, syncopated between the bass line elaboration and a counter melody played as clashing major sevenths in the right hand. All this is brazenly ornamented with abrupt tone clusters and grace notes, which gradually serve to increase the hesitation before the compound beats of the 14/16 bar (like musical glottlestops) which gradually becoming more extended and more intrusive.

The effect at the forte dynamic (easily becoming a fortissimo aggregate in various recordings), can be very unsatisfactory if the listener merely is taken aback by a wild and unannounced energy after the quiet opening, assaulted by a challenging overload of material and containing so many accented notes that the tempo itself is not able to be felt as intended. Undoubtedly the intention of the argument starts with little compromise, but I recall in so much of the composers orchestral writing the separate timbres that are used to keep musical lines from colliding, so every effort must be made by the pianist to play trills and scale/flourishes with luminous tone and at a lower dynamic than the rhythmic melodies.

I have endeavoured to keep the tempo clear, and the same as the crotchets of the opening, with a tempo about 59 which certainly feels fast enough, but allows for the lightness of touch that helps all the textures shine. During the 14/16 main passages, the only notes requiring the forte dynamic are those indicated as accented in the lower part of the right hand countermelody, and more so, those initial notes of the left hand in each bar with their own accent marks. 

Even a tempo of 59 (rather than the 76 indicated in the score) might feel a considerable amount faster than “Allegro ma non troppo” but I feel the composers indication is based upon the two even and swaying compound beats of the bar, particularly when considering the left hand alone. If this underlying pulse is appreciated by the listener  then a more successful interpretation should be possible.

To be continued…


Fingering and technique in the 6th Movement

Due to a hard disk failure, the Movement 6 recordings I made in the spring are being redone from September,  and the time since has been valuable to reflect upon the approach to this extraordinary piano writing that I have taken.

The first edition score contains key directions for the pianist, but plenty of room for interpretation with the danger that the performer could forget about the overall indication of style from moment to moment when the texture needs to be maintained.

The technique appreciated for the performance of Ravel, Boulez, Liszt, Sorabji is also needed here for the lightness of touch that sustains a layer of bell like, legatissimo softness in the right hand (initially), alongside which the phrased melodic material can project. The composer indicates that there should be no crescendo in the groupetti layers, and this is the case everywhere except where the crescendo marks state.

The central section is divided into pairs of subsections that set up a kind of call and response, where the composer quotes earlier material from the sonata. The score indication is for a delicate sweetness, and after each response section, it is possible to use a short fermata to bring out the dramatic playfulness of the musical conversation. The rhythmic phrasing and staccato notes have to be full of clarity. A technical challenge in These passages is to play the trills in the left hand, without disturbance by the rhythmic diads also given to the left hand. A good deal of practice is needed, and in my case the right hand is used to assist with some of the seconds so as not to interrupt the trills for their full duration.

The image from the printed score shows part of this middle section including my added indication to use the right hand in the lower voice where necessary to maintain the evenness and technical independence of the trill. In fact for my smallish hands only the lower E flat is taken with the right hand, the G flat manageable with the left hand fifth finger while controlling the trill with thumb and second finger of course.

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…

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)