Review: Max at 80

First published in the Guardian on 15 September, 2014

It’s been a long birthday season for Peter Maxwell Davies, from midsummer concerts in Orkney to a late-night Prom on the big day itself. This Glasgow finale felt like a homecoming among friends. There were solo, chamber and orchestral works performed by musicians who have known the composer for decades, and there were birthday presents: three surprise tributes by fellow Scottish composers. Sally Beamish, Alasdair Nicolson and James MacMillan each presented short pieces responding to aspects of Maxwell Davies’s legacy. All three spoke fondly of ‘Max’ as an inspiration and a generous source of encouragement. There was a lot of love in the room.

Beamish’s Fanfares and Fancies on a Popular Air is a spry piano duet (played here by Michael Bawtree and Beamish herself) following in the long tradition of variations on a theme by the dedicatee – in this case Maxwell Davies’s indelibly touching Farewell to Stromness. Nicolson’s solo guitar piece is called Magnus and based on a 13th century hymn to Orkney’s patron saint. Played by Sean Shibe, it was a misty, rugged, restless evocation of the islands. MacMillan, meanwhile, paid tribute to Maxwell Davies’s work for children with a sweet, eerie Burns setting. The Rising Moon was performed by solemn young singers and bell ringers from Cumnock’s Greenmill Primary and a full-voiced quartet from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The day opened with Maxwell Davies’s yearning, fidgety String Trio (2008), played with great care by the Hebrides Ensemble. The Oboe Quartet (2013) featured impassioned playing by Lucas Macias Navarro; later, Shibe’s guitar recital included the acutely intimate Hill Runes (1981), music that spirits into being and meanders as if oblivious to the world. What emerged through the afternoon was the emotional frankness of Maxwell Davies’s music, whether the menacing flashes of Hill Runes or the unaffected tenderness of Farewell to Stromness.