Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartet No.9
Naxos Quartet No.10
Maggini Quartet [Laurence Jackson, Lorraine McAslan & David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola) & Michal Kaznowski (cello)]

Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk, in 2008 – 30 & 31 January (Quartet No.10) and 2 & 3 June
CD No: NAXOS 8.557400
Duration: 64 minutes
Reviewed: October 2008
In his booklet note for Naxos Quartet No.8, Peter Maxwell Davies describes it as “something brighter and more airy … before the radically demanding structural experiments of No.9.” For those of us who have been following the progress of this monumental cycle from the outset (links below), the appetite was truly whetted, coupled with the near certainty that No.10 would not supply a conventional full stop. True to form, Maxwell Davies delivers on both these fronts.
Naxos Quartet No.9 (2006), dedicated to the mathematician Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, reverts to the six-movement template of the Sixth Quartet, after the extraordinary seven slow movements that comprise the Seventh and the single movement of the Dowland-inspired Eighth. The entire work sounds as if it was written in the white heat of anger; its ferocity is quite the most sustained in Maxwell Davies’s recent output. The composer provides sufficient clues to leave no doubt that the anger is directed against the foreign policy of the British government in its contemporaneous engagements in the Middle East, of which Maxwell Davies has been a highly visible and outspoken critic.
The opening Allegro immediately pitchforks us into a maelstrom of terse, urgent musical argument. Maxwell Davies had originally written a separate Allegro and Largo but compacted the former and discarded the latter, using material from the Largo as slow intrusions embedded in the first movement and fast material from it as interjections in the Largo flessibile that became the actual second movement and which is one of the most disturbing stretches of music Davies has ever written. Grotesque parodistic elements abound and I received the clear impression that the terrifying musical ideas found here would be quite intolerable to bear if they were translated into verbal thought processes. A rare (for this composer) microtonal element in this and the preceding movement stems, the composer tells us, from childhood memories of wartime Manchester.
Maxwell Davies regards the compact third, fourth and fifth movements as a play-within-a-play, remembering Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These are respectively a scherzo with a trio that is a wild lurching dance, a Lento which seems to speak to us from somewhere outside of the main work and a military march which of course goes horribly wrong in the manner of all of Maxwell Davies’s recent military marches (I expect he is familiar with the late Mauricio Kagel’s Ten Marches to Miss the Victory).
The finale continues and clinches the harmonic concerns and febrile content of the entire work, nowhere more so than in the cliffhanger of the final bars. With the hindsight of the tenth quartet, if there is a full stop to the Naxos cycle it appears here. As with the eight symphonies, the cycle is ‘completed’ in the penultimate work and the numerically final work moves into fresh territory. The Tenth Naxos Quartet turns out to be one of the detours in the cycle, along with numbers 4, 5 and 8, except that this detour intentionally leads to the possibility of as-yet unwritten quartets (there is no double bar-line at the end of the finale).
Naxos Quartet No.10 is conceived as a quasi-Baroque, five-movement suite of (mainly) Scottish dances and is constructed in a Bartók-like arch-form. The central slow movement, ‘Passamezzo Farewell’, is easily the most substantial. Apart for an ecstatic up-swelling at around the three-quarter mark, the prevailing mood is restrained, serene even, perhaps reflecting the dedication of the work to the memory of Fausto Moroni, Hans Werner Henze’s partner of many years.
Fleeting songs and dances are heard either side of this movement, first a ‘Slow Air and Rant’ and then a fourth-movement entitled ‘Deil Stick da Minister’, once again with parody to the fore. The first and last movements are respectively ‘Broken Reel’ and ‘Hornpipe Unfinished’, both viewed very much through a distorting lens. The latter does yield to a slow central plateau of harmonic distillation before the (alleged!) hornpipe returns and peters out, to be finished off in “the listener’s imagination”, as the composer puts it.
The performances of both works continue in the vein of the previous recordings, with that self-effacing virtuosity that is the speciality of the Maggini Quartet. Its members are equally at home in the language of both the visceral and the pastoral, the bipolar points between which the Naxos cycle fluctuates, often on a hair-trigger. The Tenth Quartet was recorded first, in January 2008, with Lorraine McAslan as first violin, before she stood down for family reasons. The Ninth was recorded in June with Laurence Jackson returning as Leader, presumably as an interim arrangement, since the Maggini Quartet has recently announced the appointment of Gina McCormack as first violin.
The Maggini Quartet and Naxos can be immensely proud of their achievements in bringing this landmark cycle into being. As for its composer, it seems that the wider stage is set to reappear following his recent immersion in chamber music. How the experience gained in working with the medium of the string quartet, the most refined and elevated of all musical formats, will be taken back into the orchestral realm is the next exciting adventure in the career of this most exemplary of creative artists.

 

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