The world première of Naxos Quartet No. 10 by Peter Maxwell Davies
October 24, 2007
by Nicolas Soames
The series of ten Naxos Quartets written by the UK's leading English composer Peter Maxwell Davies for the Maggini Quartet and the record label came to a superb conclusion with the world première, on 16 October at London’s Wigmore Hall, of the Tenth Quartet. The immediate reaction was that ‘Max’, as the Master of the Queen’s Music is popularly known, has given of his best.
Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Peter
In his programme note, Maxwell Davies wrote: ‘The big decision, upon facing the last of the quartets for Naxos, was whether this should be a grand finale... I eventually decided to write a modest work, based on the Baroque Suite, but with Scottish dances rather than bourées and allemandes.’ In fact, few in the packed concert hall would have said it was a modest work. It was totally compelling. A strong, characterful first movement is followed by two slow movements, highlighting, initially, viola and cello. Then comes a longer Passamezzo Farewell for the fourth movement, extended and musically rich, which leads into the finale. This, totally unexpectedly, concludes with a hornpipe left in mid-air!
The composer explained afterwards that he had visions of listeners with the complete Naxos box-set of the Quartets coming to this curious end – and realising the natural conclusion was to start again! Musically this is exactly what they can do, as the end of the Tenth leads beautifully into the beginning of the First.
At the reception afterwards, given by the music publishers Chester, the 25-minute work was said by many at to be, even at first hearing, the pinnacle of the cycle.
The Maggini Quartet will record both the Ninth and Tenth Quartets in January next year over three days, under the guidance of Andrew Walton, the Naxos producer who has overseen the series. Peter Maxwell Davies will be in attendance – he has sat through all the recordings except one, when conducting commitments made it impossible. It is something he has enjoyed, he confided, though he has generally resisted the temptation to make any major changes between the world premieres and the recording. He hailed the collaboration between the Maggini Quartet and Naxos, which enabled him to concentrate on the quartet form and produce ten works in five years.
The composer described how he does most of his composing whilst walking with his dog along the beach on Sanday, the Orkney island where he lives. The clarity of sound and air allows him to think clearly about the themes – in the case of the Quartet cycle, magic squares and architectural forms. ‘You get to know the material as you walk along the shore. I write outdoor music – I do not depend on bits of paper!’ he explained.
Composer Peter Maxwell Davies on Sanday beach
At the pre-concert talk he recalled his first visit to Darmstadt in 1956 where he encountered many composers who were keen, at that revolutionary time, to start from a tabula rasa, a clean slate. ‘But I wanted to build up from my roots,’ he said... and it is an approach that is still evident half a century later, in the Naxos Quartets.
His roots are firmly set in the ground of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (significantly, the Maggini concert opened with Haydn and closed with Beethoven’s ‘Rasumovsky’ No. 3). ‘A lot of composers are rather inhibited by the works of the great masters, but I regard them as my friends – I am not daunted by them,’ he remarked. The journey through the ten quartets has been a learning process for him, but ‘a marvellous journey’. He added: ‘It has been a bit like a novel in ten chapters.’
Some of those chapters changed unexpectedly, because although Maxwell Davies famously lives an isolated life in the Orkneys he feels very much a part of contemporary society. His despair over the Iraq War had an effect on the Third Naxos Quartet. ‘I was bloody furious,’ he said. The artist feels he does have a role in reflecting the world in which he lives, though ‘the narrative has to be purely musical’.
He dedicated the Eighth Quartet to Queen Elizabeth II (for her 80th birthday), which is why, within the musical structure, there is a John Dowland Galliard originally written for Queen Elizabeth I!
On a general note, he commented: ‘Through working on these quartets I have learned to be very personal, which will help me now as I write orchestral music.’ He hoped that in the near future there might be a ‘Naxos Day’, or rather event, in which the quartets would be played over two or three days, enabling the works to be seen in perspective.
The première of the last in the cycle was an important moment for the Maggini Quartet. Over the last decade, its recordings for Naxos of English music has given it a special place in English chamber performance. Yet giving the world premiere of the Tenth Quartet was a particular challenge, since it now has a new first violinist: Lorraine McAslan has taken over from Laurence Jackson, who left to become principal of the CBSO.
Read reviews of the world première performance of Naxos Quartet No. 10 in The Guardian and The Independent.