[Laurence Jackson & David Angel (violins);
Martin Outram & Michal Kaznowski, cello]
Naxos Quartets 4 & 5
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
The ongoing cycle of Naxos Quartets by Peter Maxwell Davies has become something of a fixture in the Wigmore Hall's winter season. Last October saw the performance here of the second and third quartets, and the October before brought No.1, and this concert featured the next two in this 10-part cycle ostensibly lighter in manner, but no less intensive as regards the quartet writing or less elaborate in terms of their motivic content.
Playing as a single movement of around a half-hour's duration, Naxos Quartet No.4 (2004) was partly inspired by Breugel's painting Children's Games specifically its constant juxtaposing of incident and perspective, represented musically by the transformational procedures which Davies introduces right from the opening phrase. Of course, any intention of mirroring the carefree spontaneity of the visual images is increasingly denied by the way in which these musical procedures develop their own internal logic as, also, by the fact that the motifs themselves are the result of 'experiences' carried over from the previous quartets. So while the close of the piece is an audible resolution of an underlying process, the feeling of equivocation that pervades these final bars is as palpable as it is inevitable.
It is from this 'resting point' that Naxos Quartet No.5 (2004) begins. An ethereal slow introduction is followed by a fast sonata movement which finds its thematic ideas increasingly compacted so the development seems a gestural intensification of themes elaborated in the exposition, spilling into a reprise which abbreviates those ideas as might a coda which instead occurs as an afterthought. It remains for the slow second movement to rework the same material from a similar formal, but very different emotional perspective. The quartet is subtitled Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland, and there is a real sense of texture alternately fragmenting and coalescing as might a recurrent beam of light in the build-up to the main climax, resolving the musical argument before the tranquil close.
Both works were played with the particular combination of incisive attack and inward intensity that the Maggini Quartet has been uncovering in Davies's quartet writing as the cycle progresses, and which distinguished these performances. The quartets were heard in reverse order No.5 being followed (in the first half) by the second of Haydn's Op.71 quartets (1793). Both this and the Op.74 set find the composer projecting his thinking onto a broader canvas, in line with the considerable public success that his music Irrespective of genre - was now attracting. Despite its slow introduction, the D major is among the most concentrated of Haydn's later quartets: a forceful Allegro followed by a typically serene Adagio; then, after the pithiest of Minuets, a finale whose
closing acceleration is brought off with a wit that the young Beethoven then studying with Haydn was not slow to emulate. It made the perfect foil to the latest Maxwell Davies brace in this absorbing annual series.