Naxos Quartets 8 & 9

Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartet No.8 [London premiere]
String Quartet in E flat, Op.71/3
Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartet No.9 [World premiere]

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 October, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The cycle of Naxos Quartets by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies here reached its penultimate stage, the Eighth and Ninth being given with the commitment that the Maggini Quartet has evinced throughout in concerts and on Naxos’s on-going recordings.

Dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen on her 80th Birthday, Naxos Quartet No.8 (2006) is designedly an ‘intermezzo’ within the series. Its single movement, some 18 minutes in duration, begins with a contemplative adagio before taking in alternately fast and slow sections as if ghosting the sonata process. The formal interplay of motion here is not unlike that often pursued by Robert Simpson in his own towering quartet cycle, but the expressive apex – during which John Dowland’s Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard is revealed to be the work’s underlying inspiration – is pure Maxwell Davies in its character.

A work, then, of considerable all-round unity – whereas Naxos Quartet No.9 (2006), dedicated to the mathematician Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, is a vastly different proposition. Although not on quite the scale of the epic sequence of adagios that is Naxos No.7, this six-movement, 36-minute piece rankswith numbers 3 and 6 as the most combative of the series thus far. The substantial opening movements apparently began as a single entity, which likely explains why the Allegro’s initial energy is undermined and finally undone by slower material, while the Largo’s initial threnody is attacked then obliterated by more disruptive elements. The three movements that follow – a lively if quixotic Presto, a tranquil if near-expressionless Largo and a trenchant Alla marcia – are, as the composer sees it, almost a quartet in miniature; homing in on aspects of the opening brace so that possibilities of resolution are implied without yet being made absolute. Such is left to the closing Allegro, with its harsh textural juxtaposition of violins against viola and cello – and concluding the work with a resolve that yet stops short of being conclusive. It thus remains for Naxos Quartet No.10 to round out the series as whole.

In between came Haydn’s Opus 71/Number 3 – among the first batch of quartets in which the now-renowned composer sought to invest the medium with an appreciably more demonstrative manner, in keeping with the more public arena in which such works were likely to be heard. If the Maggini underplayed the imperious command of the Vivace, the pathos in the Andante’s affecting Variations and also the Minuet’s relaxed demeanour were fully brought out – and then conveyed the finale’s robust humour with alacrity.

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