[Laurence Jackson & David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola) & Michal Kaznowski (cello)]
Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk between 13-15 June 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557399 Duration: 73 minutes Reviewed: September 2007
Naxos Quartets 7 & 8
Reviewed by Steve Lomas
With the cycle of ten string quartets commissioned by Naxos now approaching completion, the scale of Peter Maxwell Davies’s achievement is already quite clear. This is quite simply the greatest and most generously rewarding quartet cycle since that of Elliott Carter (if we may assume that Carter’s oeuvre is completed in that department, he turns 100 in December 2008, although a Sixth Quartet seems quite likely!). And, unlike Carter’s and the output of most other composers of quartets, the Naxos Quartets are absolutely a cycle, conceived from the outset as a single journey, albeit one with many localised diversions.
In some respects, the 55-minute-long Seventh, written in 2005, can lay claim to being the most extraordinary so far, the principle of the ‘slow movement’ elevated to an entire work of slow movements – no less than seven (four Adagios, one Lento, one Adagio molto and one Lento molto to be precise). Maxwell Davies faces the structural challenge head on and it is a measure of his success in meeting it that the quartet in no way feels overlong. Leaving the sheer quality of the writing apart, he achieves this in two ways. Firstly, the movements are not uniformly slow, parts of the fourth and seventh movements for instance unfolding at quite a pace. Secondly, each movement finds a different way of being slow. Davies has specifically disavowed the connection with the work’s obvious historical precursors by Haydn and Shostakovich, although to my ears something of the latter’s bleak and desolate ‘late’ manner has found its way into the syntax of the quartet.
In an unusually long and dense programme note, the composer explains in some detail how the seven movements are modelled on architectural principles he has observed in six buildings in Rome (five sacred and one secular) designed by the 17th-century architect Francesco Borromini. Maxwell Davies first encountered these in the 1950s whilst living in Rome as a student of the composer Petrassi and revisited them just prior to the writing of the quartet. It is well-known that Borromini worked at the interface of tradition and constructive experiment and as such was an “early paradigm” for a composer whose life work has been dedicated to creating a synthesis of those apparently opposing forces. In the Seventh Naxos Quartet, Maxwell Davies deploys his formidable structural technique to manipulate his raw material through his customary magic squares and other arcana, but here applies these to generate compositional stratagems modelled on Borromini. He admits that these procedures are not in themselves readily audible and undoubtedly the music has little in the way of impressionistic recreation of Borromoni’s structures (a couple of which I have visited myself and certainly don’t recognise in their musical incarnation here). Nevertheless, one can recognise how the physical disposition of stone has been translated into the realms of sound and time.
The first movement, based on the design of the S. Carlino church, plays with notions of ‘false’ perspective, in which the music that builds up to a ‘climax’ seems to retrospectively shrink in duration as it recedes in time. Conversely, the music winding down from a climax can be manipulated to seem longer than it in fact is. Maxwell Davies has been playing with these illusions all of his creative life and here they form the very essence of the musical material.
As if to emphasis how two consecutive slow movements can exist in time in very different ways, the second occupies an identical ten-and-a-half-minute time-span to the first. However, its spectral two-part writing and eerie evocation of a half-heard Requiem Mass (could Maxwell Davies have had Ferneyhough’s Funerailles at the back of his mind?), seem to hang motionless in the air.
The third movement, modelled on the S. Giovanni in Laterano, presents a single musical paragraph in three successive guises. The last of these yields the most coruscating writing of the entire work, a quite extraordinary passage. Just as in the modern city of Rome itself, the past – in the shape of ‘medieval’ allusions – lurks in every nook and cranny of the music.
The short fourth movement, based on a single detail of the Oratorio dei Filippini, lightens the prevailing tone a little, with gently dancing fragments leading into a warmly lyrical canticle. Something of this holds over into the fifth movement, a sustained paragraph that builds up in a great rhetorical curve.
A recurring feature throughout the quartet is an upward-spread pizzicato chord (often a minor triad) on the cello and this achieves its apotheosis in the opening passage of the sixth movement, after the secular Palazzo Falconieri. But the resumption of arco turns the music into a dirge that bodes ill for the final destination of the work. It does not however prepare us for the startling plunge into hysterics at the opening of the final movement, in which we revert to the S. Carlino but this time to witness the cack-handed suicide of Borromini himself. The first bars of the quartet reappear as the tumult subsides and the lifeblood of the work slowly drains away into extinction. A chilling ending to what is surely a masterpiece.
The terms of Naxos’s commission stipulated that each pair of quartets must fit on a single CD. The length of the Eighth Quartet – a single movement of 19 minutes – was therefore preordained by the length of is predecessor. Also written in 2005, and dedicated to HM The Queen on her 80th-birthday, Maxwell Davies describes the work as “very much the intermezzo of the set”. It thus joins with the Fourth and Fifth Quartets as one of the side-trips in the journey. That said, it is a quite enchanting work that I have returned to frequently (it is in fact on my i-Pod, where it always creates a stir when it appears on the random-shuffle mode!).
Heard back-to-back with the Seventh, the Eighth appears to emerge straight out of the dying exhalation of that work. However, it soon becomes apparent that it is cut from very different cloth, its fast music genial and playful rather than fiercely worked-out, its slow music luminous and song-like. The source material on this occasion is “Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard” by John Dowland and its plangently diatonic nature audibly generates an altogether airier discourse.
The quartet alternates fast and slow passages in the manner of Purcell’s viol fantasias. These become progressively more festooned with details from the Dowland until it briefly emerges fully-formed, before receding into a postlude in Maxwell Davies’s ‘own’ musical language. It is striking that the manner of the Dowland’s eventual appearance – like a set of abstract dots being joined to form a concrete image – is quite different to that in Britten’s two Dowland variations, the guitar Nocturnal and the viola Lachrymae. In both works Britten gives Dowland the last say at the point where his own music has said everything it wants to. In Maxwell Davies’s work, his Dowland source is glimpsed as a sudden miraculous vision before a final summing-up on his own terms. The harmonic distillation in the final bars is one of the most optimistic endings he has ever allowed himself. But, he informs us, it’s now back to the main business with the “radically demanding structural experiments of No. 9”!
In reviews of the previous releases in this series I have confessed to finding it difficult to discuss the Maggini Quartet’s performances separately from the quartets themselves, so accurately has the composer defined these musicians’ characteristic sound in his music and so perfectly do they realise his soundworld. Suffice it to say that the present performances maintain the exemplary standards set by the earlier recordings and no praise could be higher than that.