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Maxwell Davies is a man in tune with his calling

So how tough and forbidding is the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and is there any of it that is accessible to the common man and music lover?

The bald truth is that, if you did not know any of his music and stumbled into a performance of any one of his symphonies or concertos (and I include the 10 Strathclyde Concertos I wrote about last week), you might be baffled as your brain looked for points of orientation or familiarity, whether in rhythm, harmony or melody. I am not saying these are absent; but they are couched in Max's distinctive idiom, which, over the decades, has become instinctive to him and is part of his musical DNA.

His musical language has absorbed a great deal from the environment in which he has lived for over 40 years. If you are hunting for a tune or a recognisable rhythm, you might not find one, but you are probably looking in the wrong direction and meanwhile missing the sound of the wind, the cry of a gull, the crashing thud of a rockfall, or the rush of the waves, all of which are part of the inner texture of his music.

Of course his music can be weighty as required, violently dramatic as is necessary, and hauntingly atmospheric as is suggested by his inner pulse; but I am always taken by a fleet, light-footed element that I have described as a "dancing" quality, which, as I noticed on many, many instances over the years, especially during my 20-year unbroken stint at covering Orkney's St Magnus Festival, actually seemed to reflect the physical movement of the man, whether he was conducting or simply talking to people.

Of his other music, spooky chamber opera The Lighthouse, a masterpiece of suspense and terror, will always have an audience, and the great sequence of music theatre works, notably the Eight Songs For A Mad King, which is a supreme masterwork, will feed the repertoire needs of groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble for ever. Max, who is completely uncompromising in his music, has long reiterated he has "never tried to be populist".

But there are always moments that peek through and take listeners' breath away, such as the incredibly beautiful and haunting slow movement of the Violin Concerto he wrote for Isaac Stern many years ago, premiered at a St Magnus Festival where Stern and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Andre Previn conducting, brought a special touch of glamour to the massive stone walls of St Magnus Cathedral.

Additionally, I have always felt that, as uncompromising as he is in his mature, abstract music, there is a touch of the pluralist about Max, and it has manifested itself in many ways. He always loved to talk about Haydn, father of the symphony, the string quartet and just about everything else that shaped the course of western classical music.

But Haydn's work was as much about craft as creativity. Haydn had a job. He was an employee and a provider of music for his own community, which happened to be the nobility. Max was always a provider of music for his own community to share and participate in. It happens to be the Orkney community. And even as I watched the children of Kirkwall performing Max's Cinderella on numerous occasions, I was always aware this was written for these children, and succeeding generations, who have taken it over, but equally, that the music was absolutely authentic Peter Maxwell Davies.

There are a few film scores, notably with Ken Russell for The Devils and Max's dance band arrangement of Sandy Wilson's musical, The Boyfriend, just reissued on Naxos; and of course there is his greatest popular hit, Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, one of the most frequently played of all of Max's pieces (most recently just last Saturday by Perth Symphony Orchestra at its 60th anniversary concert) and the most hilarious musical portrait of staggering, stumbling inebriation ever conceived. Peter Maxwell Davies. Some composer. Some man.

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