02 Maxwell Davies Eight SongsPeter Maxwell Davies – Eight Songs for a Mad King
Psappha Ensemble (Dov Goldberg; Benedict Holland; Tim Williams; Kelvin Thomas; Richard Casey; Jennifer Langridge; Conrad Marshall)
Psappha PSA1007 (naxosdirect.com/search/5029385997656)

Music can depict madness, but can’t derive from the mind of the insane person, at least not according to Jonathan Miller. As if in defiance of that outlook, Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016), with a libretto by Randolph Stow, even cribs some of the writing (musical as well as literary) of King George III, the lone protagonist in this musical drama. It’s heartbreaking to listen to. I wonder, can it be relevant or worthwhile committing the attention, time and even anguish the piece demands? 

While he ruled England, George III suffered from a severe mental disorder, at times lucid and at others not. Davies and Stow depict the suffering of a terrified, befuddled and sad man, using his own words. Even without staging, the humanity and horror come through.

The work picks up where its arguable predecessor, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, left off. There’s a good deal of extended techniques shared among the six instrumentalists, while shrieks and guttural growls challenge the soloist’s larynx. Musical events alternate between synchronous and the opposite. The ensemble, as caged birds in the monarch’s aviary, whistle and call in response to the music box George is said to have used to try to teach them to sing.

Originally released on limited edition vinyl to celebrate the 80th birthday of its patron Davies in 2014, the Psappha ensemble has re-issued this 2012 recording on vinyl and digital formats in conjunction with the NMC Recordings label. Their assurance and familiarity with the dense and difficult material (they worked closely with Davies for years), make this as close as one could want to a definitive performance.

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