Max’s Naxos Quartets – No.1

Maxwell Davies
Quartet Movement
Little Quartet No.1
Little Quartet No.2
Naxos Quartet No.1 [world premiere]
String Quartet in B flat, Op.71/1

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 October, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Never one for doing things by halves, and unafraid to invoke the weightiest precedents, Peter Maxwell Davies has embarked on a cycle of ’late’ string quartets – no doubt refining the processes of the symphonies and concertos at the forefront of his output during the last two decades. What is planned – already, it seems, in all essentials – is a cycle of ten quartets that will take shape over the next five years, to be premiered by the Maggini Quartet and funded by the record label Naxos. A fusing of collaboration and patronage that the composer has likened to issuing a novel in periodic instalments. Certainly there was a tangible sense of beginnings left incomplete in the quartet premiered tonight.

The first half of the concert went back literally to Davis’s compositional beginnings in 1952, with the Quartet Movement salvaged from a longer work written when only 18. With its vivacious fusing of classically developmental and pre-classically repetitive thinking, it provides a microcosm of the composer’s creative future – couched in an idiom evoking Bartókian and Stravinskian models.

The wonderfully succinct and subtle String Quartet from 1961 – inexplicably, still unrecorded – will no doubt feature at a later concert. For now, the Maggini gave us two Little Quartets, which proved Davies’s sole contribution for the medium over the next 40 years. Written in 1977 and ’80, the First was originally ’lost in the post’ and recomposed in 1987 as the Second. Heard in this order, they constitute almost an integral quartet: the three short movements of No.1 – plaintive ’Andante’, folk-inflected ’Allegro’ and elegiac ’Lento’ – complemented by the through-composed No. 2, whose wistful ’Adagio’ returns to round off a compact and deftly-scored ’Allegro moderato’.

Then to Haydn, whose presence is discernible across the spectrum of quartet writing that followed, and the first of his Op.71 Quartets. Sanguine even by the Olympian standards of his last creative decade, it projects its geniality and vitality with a confidence that reflects the public domain in which the composer’s music was now being heard. With their very equable blend of tone and manner, the Maggini are natural Haydn performers – at their best in a pensive ’Adagio’ and robust ’Minuet’.

And so to Naxos Quartet No.1. A three-movement work of 29 minutes might suggest a relatively orthodox approach. Instead, the opening movement integrates its ’Adagio and Allegro’ components in a dense and elaborate sonata-form; a double exposition recalls that of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, followed by a three-stage development whose variety of procedures gives it the feel of a simultaneous reprise. After an astutely judged slackening of tension, the ’Largo’ emerges as a juxtaposition of grave, pavane-like motion with violent outbursts of recitative akin to those in Shostakovich’s late quartets. Over the course of the movement these types gradually coalesce without neutralising each other’s potency. It is left to the rarefied, two-minute scherzo-cum-finale to disperse the accumulated tension, leaving the ideas heard so far to resonate with intriguing and no doubt fruitful possibilities.

With lithe textures and forthright but supple part-writing, this is quartet music that recalls the examples of Tippett and Britten – and also Robert Simpson whose fifteen quartets remain the most substantial contribution to the medium by a British composer. As begun tonight, however, Davies’s planned sequence of ten seems set to make its mark in no uncertain terms.

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