Naxos Quartets 6 & 7

Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartet No.7 (Metafore sul Borromini) [World premiere]
String Quartet in D, Op.33/6
Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartet No.6

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Naxos Quartets of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies continued at this recital with the sixth and seventh in the cycle: both substantial works, with a marked inner variety achieved by wholly contrasting means.

Certainly the Seventh Quartet (2005), with a sequence of seven Adagio and Lento movements playing for 55 minutes, takes the outwardly similar format of Haydn’s Seven Last Words and Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Quartet to a relative extreme. Subtitled “Metafore sul Borromini”, each movement takes as its point of departure a formal innovation found in buildings by the ill-fated seventeenth-century Roman architect – its visual attributes translated into musical structure through a combination of plainchant and magic-square transformations long favoured by the composer. All to the good, yet such abundant slowness needs the focussing on motivic essentials that those above predecessors distil so intently in their respective works; and which, at least in the first two movements of his new quartet, Maxwell Davies pointedly eschews. Playing for nearly half the overall time-span, these evince a formal and expressive complexity that – at least on first hearing – is self-defeating in the context of the work as a whole. The later movements, more condensed as to form and content, are more readily perceivable in terms of self-defining components that evolve towards an overall entity: whether this entity possesses a comprehensive musical logic, and its exact nature, will need several further hearings to discover.

No such problem arises in the case of the Sixth Quartet (2004-5); its six movements comprise a concerted and ultimately impressive renewal of the strategy adopted by Beethoven in three of his ‘late’ quartets. Maxwell Davies develops this in one significant respect: the vigorous opening Allegro which winds down to a resting-point at around the place where one might expect a reprise to commence; leaving an even livelier closing Allegro to take up the argument, and with a renewed decisiveness through to the close. In between come a brief intermezzo and an only marginally longer scherzo, followed by an Adagio – its alternating phases of calm and anxiety build into the cycle’s most overtly Beethovenian movement yet – and a further brief intermezzo whose very simplicity makes it an ideal upbeat into the finale. Achieving unity through diversity has been a recurrent feature of these quartets, but only here does it feel to have been unequivocally attained.

The Maggini Quartet was on commanding form in both works, with the greater conviction of the Sixth Quartet ostensibly the result of having been ‘played in’ over the course of this year. A pity that the performance of the Haydn quartet, the last and most ingratiating in his relatively lightweight 1781 sequence, emerged a little too twee for its own good – and, given that Naxos Six lasts a ‘mere’ 34 minutes, the Haydn would have been better included after the interval alongside it.

Even so, the evening was rounded off with a delightful surprise: a birthday greeting to Judy Arnold – Maxwell Davies’s manager of many years – which made a fantasia-like progress through three centuries of musical history, with the birthday tune a cantus firmus constantly and often-amusingly audible. Another ‘Max lollipop’ has been born.

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