Music: My running bet with an atheist firebrand

When Peter Maxwell Davies died last week it wasn’t unexpected: he was 81 and had been ill. But Max’s passing (he was universally known as Max) ended a chapter in the history of British avant-gardist music.

As he aged, his outlook on the world grew softer, more “Establishment”, not least with his appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music. But in youth he was a firebrand: fierce, combative, out to shock (albeit with uncompromising principles). And Max’s principles embraced an interesting attitude towards the Church. He was an atheist but deeply drawn to Christian music, liturgy and spiritual debate. I had a running bet with him that on his deathbed he’d convert; he swore he wouldn’t. As I write these words, I haven’t yet been able to find out who won.

Max’s achievements covered opera, symphonies, the grand tradition. But he also had a strong sense of community, writing not only for professionals, but for his neighbours, and for children. Not so many artists working at the highest level do that nowadays; so it was good to go to Saffron Walden last weekend and witness the success of a new community opera called The Glass Knight, written by Philip Sunderland, for some 300 children and based on a local Essex legend about slaying monsters.

Staged in the impressive £10 million Saffron Hall, which opened recently as a concert venue-cum-school facility, The Glass Knight was a custom fit for its performing circumstances. And its sweeping lyricism, somewhere between Britten, Sondheim and The Lion King, achieved the target of accessibility with the challenges that this kind of piece requires.

It came off brilliantly, with strong, committed singing of a kind you rarely hear from young, state-school performers any more, and two fine leads in Joel and Jasmine Cairns. That a small market town could manage such an enterprise was doubtless due to the good luck of having Saffron Hall, run as it is by an ex-head of music at the Barbican – unique advantages. But collective determination clearly counted too, and paid off.

As it happened, playing Saffron Hall the following night were the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on tour with their chief conductor Vasily Petrenko. And although I wasn’t present, I caught up with the Oslo Phil at London’s Cadogan Hall, which was too small a space to contain the scale of their programme but nonetheless delivered a fine concert – not least because of the characterful playing of Henning Kraggerud as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Kraggerud’s musicianship is neither glamorous nor glossy: his sonority is nut-brown and his manner muscularly mischievous.

It’s totally Norwegian, honest and engaging. And for me, those qualities position him among the leading violinists of today.