[Laurence Jackson & David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola) & Michal Kaznowski (cello)]
Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk between 30 September-2 October 2003
CD No: NAXOS 8.557396 Duration: 73 minutes Reviewed: November 2004
Naxos Quartets 1 & 2
Reviewed by Steve Lomas
When Nonesuch Records commissioned Morton Subotnick in the late 1960s to create a work designed specifically for a recording, it might have seemed at the time that the gamekeeper was turning poacher and that a more creative relationship was being inaugurated between living composers and record companies. In the event that did not happen and the few other examples that spring to mind, such as Mauricio Kagel’s 1898, commissioned by Deutsche Grammophon to mark its 75th-anniversary in 1973, tend to have been works which could only properly exist in the medium of a recording.
What seems to be unique about Naxos’s enlightened commission for 10 string quartets from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is that the works are intended first and foremost for live performance, with the CDs documenting them post facto. It also proves to be the most happy convergence of intentions, as it had been obvious to anyone following Maxwell Davies’s protean output that a series of ‘late Beethoven’ quartets was on the cards, well before that became his publicly stated aim. It also gives the Maggini Quartet the rare opportunity of working closely over an extended period with a leading composer and to add to its award-strewn series of recordings for Naxos of the British string quartet literature.
Literature has been directly invoked by Maxwell Davies in referring to the cycle, which he sees as being analogous to a novelist publishing a book piecemeal in magazines (Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Max’s desert-island novel – was partially released in this fashion). This has resulted in the ongoing creation of a kind of hyper-quartet with all manner of cross-fertilisation between the individual works. Maxwell Davies has often worked in this fashion but never with such detailed intent and working out – the seven ‘official’ symphonies only became an organic cycle half-way through and the ten Strathclyde concertos, whilst sharing some concerns and even musical material, are nevertheless not as biologically intertwined as the quartets are proving to be.
Indeed, the overarching unity of the already highly diverse individual quartets is in itself a subtext of those quartets, certainly of these first two. In their different ways, the characteristic trajectory of all the movements of the first two quartets is toward an eventual revelation of a single common identity between what had hitherto seemed disparate, even contradictory, elements. I have no doubt that the composer sees in this a metaphor for the most fundamental aspects of human existence and a vehicle for his socio-political beliefs articulated through the civilising force of music, in the medium in which it is distilled in its purest form.
The first movement of Naxos Quartet No.1 thus has to discharge the burden of setting in motion the entire cycle, as well as its more localised function. This it does supremely well. Maxwell Davies here throws the full armoury of his sovereign compositional technique into the challenge of generating enough material to sustain some five hours of musical argument. The movement operates at white heat throughout. The material itself turns out to be derived from the very beautiful slow movement of the third Strathclyde concerto, for horn and trumpet. This is refracted through a typical Davies stratagem of ‘playing’ with classical sonata form. Here the game consists of making the double exposition and the development so exhaustive that there can be no recapitulation, just a ghostly vanishing.
It is also evident that Maxwell Davies has decided in these quartets to tackle decisively the formal question which dominated his symphonic journey, namely how the concept of ‘development’ can be applied to material which is itself generated by perpetual transformation processes (the process here being the use of a “most perfect pandiagonal magic square”). Thus the development section proposes three different approaches in succession – the classical Germanic model, “pure thematic transformation” and variation technique, albeit subtractive rather than additive variation. This last passage yields a highly characteristic ‘inverse’ climax, in which pockets of quiet slow music gradually insinuate themselves into the argumentative clamour that has dominated the movement, a compositional gambit that first appeared explicitly in Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.5. The movement ends on an inhalation.
That principle is reversed in the second movement, where a rapt slow rumination is constantly interrupted by violent or fantastical elements, which through masterly structural and harmonic control gradually converge into a single articulate music. All of this is perfectly audible. Paradoxically, this brings the work to a point where everything appears to have been said and yet there is still much more to say. The composer thus has no alternative but to side-step the dilemma and leave us with a finale which comprises a mere two minutes of husky whispering and disappears upward and out of earshot, to reappear in the third segment of the meta-quartet, Naxos Quartet No.3 (a similar gesture ends the first movement of Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.3) - a strangely effective ending.
Hearing the even weightier Naxos Quartet No.2 hard on the heels of No.1, it is clear that it comes carrying the inherited baggage of its predecessor. A slow introduction leads into what is already sounding like a PMD first-movement manner in these quartets (and hence must inevitably be contradicted in forthcoming instalments!) – propulsive, fiercely driven, rhythmically unstable (the jostling of threes against fours that Maxwell Davies has elsewhere likened to the effect of cross-currents on a rowing boat). Yet the rhetoric of this movement ultimately proves to be quite distinct from that of the first quartet’s opening movement, although the concerns of the earlier work resurface as the movement’s final gestures indicate that its discrete elements were part of a single musical idea all along. I wonder if Maxwell Davies was recalling the astounding sleight of hand at the corresponding moment in Britten’s Second Quartet, where three themes are revealed to have been separate strands of a single texture.
The remaining three movements travel a path that the Symphony No.3 (and, after a fashion, the Symphony No.6) had also taken, namely two conjoined ‘scherzos’ capped by a profound slow meditation. The close relationship between the inner two movements (played attacca) suggests another manifestation of the ‘unity in diversity’ principle. They are crammed to bursting with characterful detail. In its present context, the wondrous closing movement then seems to supply a provisional finality to the consciously ‘unsatisfactory’ end of the first quartet. The moment a couple of minutes before the end when a musical kite is floated over what appeared to have been a final stillness is simply magical.
The Maggini Quartet delivers performances that audibly convey the impression of having had every detail carefully worked on in collaboration with the composer. Each line emerges clearly even in the most knotted passages. It seems inevitable that the musicians will find their way to the heart of Maxwell Davies’s idiom as they journey with him into the unknown. The recorded sound has a natural, soft-grained openness that perfectly suits the style of the Maggini and the music itself. I hope many curious listeners will be tempted by Naxos’s budget price to sample music that they might otherwise have considered as ‘difficult’. This is certainly not easy music, but its rewards are limitless. As for Max himself, he is clearly on a roll in his seventieth year, not least with this project, the much-delayed launch of his recordings website and the royal appointment. Long may he reign!