Naxos Quartet No.5 (Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland)
Naxos Quartet No.6
[Laurence Jackson & David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola) & Michal Kaznowski (cello)]
Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk between 26-28 May 2005
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: April 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557398
Duration: 56 minutes
With this third release in Naxos’s series of recordings documenting the ten string quartets it commissioned from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the halfway point of the journey is reached and passed. The next release comprising the extraordinary Seventh and the recently premiered Eighth should see the commissioner finally catching up with the composer. Meanwhile the present release maintains the exceedingly high standards set by the previous two, both in terms of the calibre of the performances and the quality of the works themselves.
It is a commonly-observed feature of Maxwell Davies’s work that he relishes the challenge of creating cycles of related works, typically using common source material and exploring lines of development across the whole. Thus the formal stratagems of an individual work will be cross-fertilised with the larger concerns of the whole cycle. This encourages a way of thinking for the composer and a way of auditioning for the listener in which one keeps one ear on the local concerns of the work in question and another on the bigger picture. For the composer, the specificity of each ‘chapter’ (as Max has referred to the Naxos quartets) requires counter-balancing against the overall scheme of the cycle.
The broad story of the quartets so far has been a fiercely argumentative opening chapter to set the ball rolling, two further chapters which maintain the feverish intensity of the first whilst taking the cycle forward with new concerns, a more relaxed fourth and fifth pair which the composer calls “relatively slight” (hardly!), a sixth chapter which in some ways raises the emotional and intellectual stakes to the highest level so far, a seventh chapter – 55 minutes of slow music – perhaps functioning as the adagio of the meta-quartet and an eighth comprising a single compact movement. How the journey will continue and whether Davies will permit himself a ‘real’ resolution at the end of the tenth or leave the door open (as he did at the very end of the ten Strathclyde concertos) remains tantalisingly unclear.
The “relatively slight” fourth and fifth quartets both have extra-musical stimuli. The fourth revisited the world of children’s games (but decidedly not modern computer games!) previously visited in the Sixth Strathclyde Concerto, for flute and orchestra. Naxos No.5 draws inspiration from the sweep and ‘rhythm’ of the flashing light of the local lighthouses which Max views from his home on the Orcadian island of Sanday. Listeners familiar with Maxwell Davies’s work will recall that the rhythm of an automatic lighthouse signal is vividly woven into the thread of the masterly chamber opera, “The Lighthouse”. In the quartet, this inspiration is embedded in the molecular level of the music and probably need not concern the listener except to the extent of accepting that it generated the notes that we hear.
The 20-minute work comprises two movements: a Largo followed by a more extended Lento. The first movement opens on a B flat, which with (for Max) a startling absence of preamble, is “the unambiguous tonic of the whole work”. What starts as a descending major scale of that key immediately drifts into unexpected harmonic territory that nevertheless underpins a recognisable sonata form articulated across the movement. As in the Fourth Quartet, there is a light, playful touch to the discourse, contrasting with the white-hot intensity of much of the first three quartets. A brief coda winds the movement down with a distinctly provisional feel, which is immediately taken up and resolved at the beginning of the second movement. This is a gravely beautiful Lento, occasionally encountering pockets of disturbance. It utilises the same material and form as the first movement, thus making a statement about the nature and interplay of form and content explored by Davies in many other works, most explicitly the symphonies. The picturesque final gesture (a recurring feature in these quartets) lingers long in the memory.
As we proceed to the Sixth Quartet, we are immediately pitch-forked into an Allegro which appears to be already in mid-conversation as it begins and there is an audible sense of returning, after a couple of mildly relaxing detours, to the road we last travelled in the Third Quartet. No.6 is cast in six movements, broadly speaking an opening sonata allegro, two contrasting scherzos, a slow movement, an interlude and a finale. Davies comments in his booklet note that he had been making a renewed study of the late quartets of Beethoven (it would have been amazing if he had not!). Thus one is tempted to see in the six-movement form the influence of Beethoven’s B flat quartet, Opus 130, the one which originally housed the Grosse Fuge which Max took to Roy Plomley’s desert island (on the ground that “there’s a problem here”, if I recall correctly).
The opening allegro is couched in the familiar ‘first movement’ manner of the cycle, ferociously combative but with occasional glimpses of a state of grace, for instance the triadic references that mysteriously float to the surface toward the end of the movement, for which the only proper description is ‘Beethovenian’.
Positioning two scherzos back to back was a gamble Max took (and won) in his Third Symphony. Here the necessary contrast is achieved, at one level, by having the first played entirely in pizzicato, with the generating plainsong material allowed to stray unusually close to the surface of the music. Echoes of the pizzicato movements in Bartók’s Fourth Quartet and Ravel’s are not actively discouraged. The second scherzo is of a tougher hue, with the trio appearing as the eye of the storm, except that when the scherzo material re-appears it has changed in character and quickly dissipates to prepare the ground for the Adagio.
This fourth movement is a kind of “negative” of the third in that a dramatic central plateau separates calmly lyrical passages. Near the end there is a strangely affecting sequence when each instrument as it were detaches itself from the collective and addresses us directly. The last bars are the first in the cycle to carry a key signature, four flats for F minor, the key of Beethoven’s ‘almost late’ Quartetto serioso, Opus 95.
Most unexpectedly (although not to Max, writing it on a Christmas Day, 2004), the brief fifth movement is a carol, a quietly miraculous interlude suggestive of a viol consort.
The sixth movement reintroduces a sense of urgency into the discourse, taking up where the first movement had left off, but intentionally too short to yield anything more than a provisional ending, namely the astonishingly unprepared final chord. This functions simultaneously as a perfectly judged if unexpected ending to the movement and the quartet as a whole, whilst positively crying out for the long exhalation that will be the seventh quartet.
Each release in this series seems to find the Maggini Quartet even more inside the core of Max’s style than the last, a journey mirroring the one being undertaken by the composer. Whilst the musicians are equal to every challenge of virtuosity set for them in these works, the increased emphasis on the lyrical in the more recent quartets flatters their renowned expertise in the field of early 20th-century English music. There is a soft grain in the Maggini house-style, which one hears in their performances of Bridge, Bliss and the like, that sits perfectly with this lyrical impulse, as of course it was designed to do so by the composer.
I am finding it increasingly difficult to comment on these performances in isolation, so intimately bound up are the conception and execution of these marvellous scores. The recorded sound, vivid yet intimate, is also completely at one with the music. No lover of serious music should be without these recordings.