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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Peter Maxwell Davies, Symphony No. 10, Andrzej Panufnik, Symphony No. 10, London Symphony Orchestra

A welcome disk is on the docket today: The London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Antonio Pappano performs Peter Maxwell Davis' Symphony No. 10 and Andrzej Panufnik's Symphony No. 10 (LSO 0767).

Maxwell Davies' 10th, subtitled "Alla ricerca di Borromini," was written between 2013-2014 and enjoys its world premiere recording here. Panufnik's 10th lasts some 15 minutes and was written in 1988, just three years before he passed. Both are late mature works and they show the respective composers at their best.

The 10th by Maxwell Davies is a considerable, ambitious work that includes the London Symphony Chorus under Simon Halsey and baritone Markus Butter as soloist. It centers around architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) and his life and work. Davies was diagnosed with cancer early in 2013 and subsequently the themes of creativity and mortality that characterize the symphony took on doubly increased personal significance as he doggedly continued work on it with unrelenting determination.

The symphony is in four movements, some with chorus and soloists, some purely orchestral, all concerned with Borromini's projects and the flow of his life. The music has a deeply somber, melancholy cast, movingly dramatic in a widely expanded-tonal modern way. The work culminates in the final movement, where Borromini's last will and testament written just hours after a suicide attempt colors the music and serves as its principal text. It has a moving finality to it that leaves one with a feeling of completion but then of absence as well. This is Maxwell Davies contemplating the biggest issues of existence in ways completely personal yet thoroughly transcendent. The closing moments are haunting.

This is music of grand design, muted, reflective, ritually transformative in its singular expressivity. It requires your concentrated attention but rewards with outstanding Maxwell Davies sublimity.

The Panufnik 10th was commissioned for Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It too has a somber way about it, a succinctly dramatic presence. The orchestration at times is considerably brighter that Maxwell Davies' 10th, with an opening for amassed brass that has a severe, bracing quality. The music continues with heightened dissonances and beautifully muted contrasts with an almost chorale continuity that gets punctuated by meaningful percussion tatoos, like a funeral march perhaps. It makes beautiful use of the full resources of the orchestra with exceptional blends and urgent outbursts. It concludes in a quiet hush that is near breathtaking. For all its brevity it is nonetheless stunning Panufnik, one of his triumphs.

The performances are first-rate, the music significant and masterful, the mood sometimes stoic, resigned, somber but in the end cathartic. Very recommended!


  1. That's odd! The Panufnik is seemingly only available on the CD release, not the digital album. Since streaming/downloads are the principal means by which I encounter unfamiliar music these days, I might have to track it down via a different album.

    But "Max 10", which I first heard via the BBC iPlayer, is incredible, isn't it? I like to think of it as combining the best of his experiments in non-tonal symphonic thought with insights into "approachability" gained through his 10 years as the UK's "Composer Laureate", to very moving ends. It's made all the more poignant by what the composer went through in writing it, which, very sadly, he now appears to be going through anew.

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    1. Hi Chris,
      Yes that does seem odd. I am reposting my response, because I found a typo in the original version. The Panifnik is equally essential and goes well with PMD's 10th. Yes the Maxwell Davies 10th is quite seminal to me. Interesting, a synthesis of his experimental forays and accessibility gained from his UK Laureate tenure? I would not argue against that. There IS a certain duality there, though all in a somber guise. But sure, it does have something of the traditional farewell sorts of symphonies...Mahler and others. The CD is sponsored in part by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music project, so that might explain the discrepancy? Did you try the Naxos distribution site for the download? Perhaps the Panufnik is only licensed to the US and Canada? (Are you trying to order from the UK?) I cannot fathom why else? Good luck and let us know!
      All best,

  3. For what it's worth, Max's official title during those 10 years was "Master of the Queen's Music", but "Composer Laureate" is essentially what it translates as, being a post that requires the writing of music for Royal and other State events. The current incumbent is Judith Weir.

    I looked at both the UK and US versions of Amazon and noticed the same discrepancy for each, so the to-include-Panufnik-or-not-to-include-Panufnik question seems to be tied to format rather than jurisdiction!

  4. Ah, yes, in this case the "Queen's Music" covers quite a bit! Sounds like a good job to have. Mozart would have coveted such a slot, especially since he was relegated in the Vienna Court to write only the music for fetes involving dance, kind of like being a disco DJ only much more involved, haha, yet very unsatisfying to him. Chris, the Naxos download site may have the complete-w/-Panufnik version. I only say that because they are the distributors of the LSO physical CD release that includes both 10ths. I am not a subscriber of it so I could not check but the url is

    As always thanks for chiming in!

    All best,