Max’s Naxos Quartets Nos.2 & 3

Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartet No.2 [London premiere]
Naxos Quartet No.3 [World premiere]
String Quartet in D minor, Op.76/2 (Fifths)

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 October, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Sir Peter (Max) is involved in a project to write 10 string quartets, the Naxos title recognises the record company’s commission. Naxos will also record the cycle. The first CD, of quartets 1 and 2, is scheduled for the autumn of 2004.

Haydn has been a big influence on Maxwell Davies and one can find baroque/classical links with Naxos No.3 – movements headed ’March’, ’Inventions’ and ’Fugue’. It’s an impressive work that held the attention throughout, not least in the 15-minute ’In nomine’, a slow movement of fractured reference that seems a personal indictment of “one of the worse foreign policy decisions” – this quartet was composed in March and April this year. The happenings in Iraq (“one of the greatest disasters of our time,” said Max from the platform, to a fair amount of applause) influenced the course of the quartet; the opening March becomes pompous, “fatuous and splintered,” although this isn’t overt – as often with this composer such things are internalised.

The ’In nomine’ is at the heart of Naxos No.3. The other three movements together play for a similar length – whether in the dexterity of the ’Inventions’ or the formality and flight of the closing ’Fugue’ – an open-ended conclusion, no doubt anticipating Naxos No.4.

The Maggini Quartet (which has notched up some impressive Naxos recordings of British music – not least Bax, Bridge and Vaughan Williams) seemed absorbed in PMD’s machinations. Earlier it had delivered Haydn’s ’Fifths’ with brio, yet not without mannerism. This degree of calculation was at odds with the spontaneous invention of the music. The apposite urgency (and emotional contrasts) given to the first movement were undermined to a certain extent by a lack of tension, and the lucidity of the ’Andante’ really didn’t need phrasal tweaking. Overriding the ’ma non troppo’ marking of the ’Allegro’ minuet, however, made one an immediate convert to this movement being so driven.

Naxos Quartet No.2, first performed at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, is exactly the 43 minutes its composer claims, although the long first movement came in two less than the anticipated 18. This opening movement has sufficient weight and density to be paralleled to the ’late’ quartets of Beethoven, and can be considered quite an achievement in terms of self-perpetuation. After this come a dramatic recitative, counterweighted by something more reflective, and a scherzo of the intermezzo type (to borrow the composer’s description). The slow finale, of a similar time-span to the first movement, initially rests on a mellifluous rocking motif and intensely expands.

Yet, the close is, once again, inconclusive – or seems so. The unity of these ten works will only become clear several years hence. Not having heard Naxos No.1, one notes material shared between Nos. 2 & 3, to which the composer alludes, but while No.3 makes a direct and lasting impression, No.2 is a tougher nut to crack.

In stylistic terms, Max is recognisable through “Scottish dance rhythms” (Naxos 2) and his personal use of pizzicato figures. There were times when Shostakovich came to mind – the spare, desolate music; Bartók – in the sophisticated use of ’simple’ material (Naxos No.3); Schoenberg – in terms of organisation; and Berg – in what might be called spectral emotionalism (the quartets’ respective scherzos).

This interesting project and, for our times, novel commission in its breadth (one might think of Max as Haydn and Naxos’s Klaus Heymann as Prince Esterházy!) brings with it a keen sense of expectation – each quartet instalment and, then, the whole cycle. The Naxos CDs will be invaluable to follow the path to Naxos 10 – in 2007 I believe – and then back to the beginning!

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