Naxos Quartets 3 & 4

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Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartet No.3
Naxos Quartet No.4

Maggini Quartet
[Laurence Jackson & David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola) & Michal Kaznowski (cello)]

Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk between 28-30 September 2004

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: July 2005
CD No: NAXOS 8.557397
Duration: 56 minutes

With the composer himself contemplating his seventh string quartet in the commissioned series of ten, Naxos has released its second CD – comprising numbers 3 (2003) and 4 (2004). As it turned out, the date of composition of the former was destined to materially affect its content.

Maxwell Davies had planned the third quartet as an unapologetic feat of compositional virtuosity in honour of music’s patron saint, Cecilia, making use of the plainsong proper to her celebration on 22nd November (birth date of Britten!), “Audi filia et vide”. This would be refracted through a mind-boggling chain of magic squares, Maxwell Davies’s favoured method of generating pitch content in many of his works but here elaborated to an extraordinary degree of complexity. The composer did indeed deliver what he intended in this respect but the formal stratagem of the quartet was affected radically by world events unfolding at the time of its composition, namely the invasion of Iraq (of which the composer has been a vocal and high-profile opponent). Thus he determined to put his abstract materials at the service of a political statement not foreseen in his original planning.

The trajectory of the first movement ‘March’ attests plainly to this. Unusually for Maxwell Davies, this launches immediately into exposition without his familiar preluding (the first two quartets have already discharged that function perhaps). Before long we are embarked on a development of quite startling ferocity and anger in which, the composer says, the material is transformed into a splintered military march – evidently very splintered, as I don’t quite hear the march myself (Maxwell Davies is clearly going through a military march period just now, for reasons not unconnected with his appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music). This astonishingly intense movement eventually replaces a recapitulation with an unexpected passage of slow, quiet music and a ghostly echo of earlier material.

The extended slow movement ‘In Nomine’ is a beautifully desolate meditation which rather surprisingly comes to rest midway on a G major triad, at which point – as promised earlier by the composer – the high scurrying material with which the First Naxos Quartet disappeared into the ether is brought back into the world of audibility. Only now does Maxwell Davies introduce the ‘cantus’ from John Taverner’s Mass-setting which spawned the ‘In Nomine’ convention, but here distorted and thereby forming a pun on the ‘not in my name’ slogan of the anti-war movement. The First Quartet material is further developed in the third movement ‘Four Inventions and a Hymn’ as a kind of scherzo, albeit a very hard-driven one. When it arrives, the hymn turns out to be a sickly parody in a manner familiar from a number of other Maxwell Davies’s works.

Another dark pun lies at the heart of the finale, ‘Fugue’, as the traditional staggered entries of the opening are quickly pitch-forked into a musical furnace more suggestive of the literal meaning of the Italian word ‘fuga’ (flight). The fugue material duly re-emerges, as it were the fugue the composer would have given us before the Iraq ‘war’ but there is no escape from reality and this retreat is rebuffed by the final clinching gestures.

Naxos Quartet No.3 is a work of huge rhetorical power that often feels as if it is bursting the seams of the quartet medium – the music seems almost too intense to be conveyed by four string instruments, although therein, of course, lies the perennial attraction of the medium to composers.

Naxos Quartet No.4, subtitled ‘Children’s Games’, is evidently intended as a relaxation (albeit PMD style!) in the overall scheme of the cycle. It draws on Brueghel’s 1560 painting (as did Strathclyde Concerto No.6, for flute), although in its form of a single movement made up of a daisy-chain of discrete subsections it most resembles Strathclyde No.9 and Symphony No.5. The overall tone of the quartet writing is genial compared to its predecessors, its fast music playful rather than aggressive, its lyricism warm rather than bleak The games depicted by Brueghel suggested a variety of musical images which are developed sequentially throughout the work, although the composer declines to specify which passage corresponds to which game.

Characteristically Maxwell Davies detects sinister adult undertones in these games (the masque “Blind Man’s Buff” of 1972 explored this territory in dramatic form) and unstable elements intrude in the latter stages of the work. In this regard Quartet No.4 further attests to Maxwell Davies’s theme from the end of the previous quartet – “It was impossible to escape into innocent childhood fantasy”. That said, he does allow himself an unusually affirmative resolution of his tonal game-plan in the closing bars, albeit only a temporary one. The whole work is a civilised pleasure.

It is hard to know what to say about the performances. The Maggini Quartet is in every way equal to the daunting challenges the composer has set. The Maggini has the requisite virtuosity (some passages in the first movement of No.3 have to heard to be believed). There is an inherent musicality about these performances – even the wildest passages are unforced and never induce headache in the way that aggressive string-playing sometimes can. There is an autumnal softness of grain to the Maggini sound that sits perfectly with the style of the music (a quality also reflected in the very sympathetic recorded sound). To my ears, on this disc the musicians have penetrated to the heart of Maxwell Davies’s music even more directly than on the first disc and there is a palpable sense of having travelled further down this particular road. Naxos cannot release the next volume fast enough.

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