One of my more treasured possessions is an old Unicorn CD of Max’s own performance of his 1969 dance-piece Vesalii Icones with his group, the Fires of London, which dates from about 1990. That version of course utilises the musicians for whom the music was originally written, and, like its companion-piece Eight Songs for a Mad King, the performance requirements are so exacting that I was dubious other players could really catch the very distinctive Maxwell Davies manner. But now Naxos have delivered a beautifully idiomatic Vesalii Icones, with the Italian ensemble Contempoartensemble, conducted by Mauro Ceccanti. Perhaps it has something to do with the chiselled clarity of the detail, but the Italian musicians seem entirely at home with the Icones’ sardonic, exhibitionist, grimaces. Based on Vesalius’ gruesome anatomical etchings, with a dancer outfitted as a flayed corpse (not unlike Robbie Williams’ notorious clip) when staged, the work re-frames the images as a set of fourteen Stations of the Cross. Unsurprisingly, the music adopts a highly modernist but strongly ironic character, with stretches of fake early music, disingenuous rococco pastoralism, pseudo-Schumann, a celestial Christmas Carol, sentimental bar-room piano, and even typewriter!, which the CD notes collectively refer to as “ritualistic expression”. But there is no denying either the unrelenting sense of unease that Vesalii Icones produces, or the impressive emotional punch of the music—an uncomfortable listen, maybe, yet a masterwork nonetheless.
The CD flanks this huge, and hugely entertaining, cry of anguish with two smaller and less expressionist works, Linguae Ignis of 2002, and the Fantasia on a Ground and Two Pavans after Purcell of 1968. Not that these works are in any sense ‘normal’, the sombre Linguae Ignis embeds a melancholy, plainchant-derived cello line in an intermittently turbulent ensemble texture, and the fairground distorting-mirror that is the Purcell-paraphrase effectively subverts a music we had considered cosily “safe”.
This is a significant release, returning one of the archetypal scores of British High Modernism to the catalogue after a very long wait. It demonstrates emphatically just what all the fuss was about back in the late sixties when this music first shocked audiences, and shows just as clearly that its sting has in no way lessened with the passing of time.