thu 27/02/2020

Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King/ Birtwistle's Secret Theatre, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King/ Birtwistle's Secret Theatre, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King/ Birtwistle's Secret Theatre, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Chamber work outclasses infamous mini-opera

Anyway, last night reminded us of a time when they were better at putting the willies up the establishment than receiving gongs from them. Last night's two main dishes, Birtwistle's Secret Theatre (1984) and Maxwell Davies's infamous mini-opera Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) - delivered with dramatic flare by the London Sinfonietta under the baton of Baldur Brönnimann - displayed the visceral stamp that made them enfants terribles. But one composer has definitely preserved his punchy freshness better than the other.

Secret Theatre is a beautifully thought out, gutsy slice of British Modernism. At its essence, we have a concerto for chamber orchestra, in which soloists peel off a body of busy accompanists to a small platform to play serially derived melodic figures. The overall shape is familiar - fast-slow-fast with a slow coda - but the individual events, tone and interaction are newly minted. The melodies, and pedestalled melodists, are a proud bunch: handsome, elegant, formal, as if declaiming in some elegant ancient language. There are stand-offs as accompaniment tries to rally interest around it. A slow section allows both to cool off, with the return of a chirpier song. It doesn't last. Only exhaustion ends the animosity. What a tremendously satisfying piece.
Leigh MelroseThere was something perhaps deliberately less sophisticated about the older Eight Songs, musically speaking at least, with its fake birdsong, theatrical commotion and Georgian pastiche. I guess one could argue that the instrumentalist accompanists are meant to be unsophisticated; they are gaolers to 
the narrator-madman (Leigh Melrose, pictured right). But even dramatically it took a little while for the whiff of period agitproppery to pass. Melrose's commitment was the main thing that stopped the work from sinking from the weight of 1960s angst.
He despatched the extended technique brilliantly. He screeched. He squealed. He howled. He rasped. And he made sure that no one sound was ever alone. This is not a simple madman, and his is not a simple voice. There was screechy howling, squeally screeching and howly whispering. There was much detail in the pungency. And there was emotion too. As the songs become increasingly knowing, Melrose became increasingly haunted. He flirts with a flute. He smashes a violin (gulp - a stomach-in-throat moment for those who didn't know it was a fake). And he's chased off stage by a big bass drum. It was moving but might have benefited from some more specific theatrical shaping.
And what of the two composers now? We only got a snippet of one. But on the evidence of his Virelai (2008) for chamber orchestra which started the night,
Birtwistle seems to have maintained the stronger voice.
Perotin melodies are put through their polyphonic paces, daubed with Birtwistle and filtered through a Webernian sieve. The result? Hindemith. Who'd have thought? Hope Ray Davies enjoyed that revelation. Oddly, couldn't spot him.


"for some inexplicable reason part of Ray Davies's Meltdown series at the Southbank". Igor, do you not understand the concept of the Meltdown festivals? Why have a dig at Ray Davies, the artistic director of the festival? Could it be because you just want to appear superior? After all, how could it POSSIBLY be the case that a mere popular music singer brings contemporary classical music to a festival. I mean, whatever next?! Isn't it enough that these two fine works were heard live? Does it matter who programmed them?

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