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Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Naxos Quartets, “a 21st-century landmark”, Now Complete

October 7, 2008

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is one of the foremost composers of our time. His charismatic and versatile musical personality, coupled with the world-wide spread of performances of his music, has meant that he reaches an unusually large and varied public. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was appointed Master of the Queen's Music in March 2004.

Originally conceived in 1997 by Maxwell Davies himself, Naxos commissioned and has now recorded and released ten string quartets in five volumes. Never before has a composer chosen to write and name a series of works after a record label, making this a unique venture in the history of recorded music.

"What compelled us to accept was how utterly unique this project is: a formal contractual arrangement between a composer, a string quartet, and a record company for ten quartets over five years," says David Angel, violinist for the Maggini Quartet. "This is remarkable, and, as far as I know, unprecedented."

When the first of Sir Peter's Naxos Quartets was written, there began a remarkable series of open rehearsals and workshops involving the composer and the Maggini, hosted at the St Gregory's Centre for Music by Canterbury Christ Church University. "This is probably the most significant commission of a series of string quartets since Prince Esterházy employed Haydn to write music for his court," said Professor Grenville Hancox, Director of Music at the University.

Distillation of a lifetime’s creativity

It is, indeed, an astonishingly varied and rich set, a musical journey into the very soul of a composer at the peak of his reputation and creative powers, which has been acclaimed by critics.

“Little did we know, when Max was commissioned by budget label Naxos to write 10 string quartets, what a late flowering odyssey it would be, all his mature skills coalescing within the intense discipline of Haydn-esque form.” (Financial Times)

Gramophone editor James Jolly made Volume 1 one of his "editor’s choice" picks for October 2002, calling it "a magnificent start to what promises to be a rewarding project" that "sets out its stall with audacity and verve." Anthony Holden, writing in The Observer, described the Quartets as "elegant, accessible, full of mood swings." Paul Driver, in his four-star review in The Sunday Times, singled out the Maggini Quartet for having "brilliant command of the idiom."

Volume 2 also rated highly: "Good to see this major cycle continuing. Volume 1 was chosen as a Recording of the Month for October last year; its successor lives up to the first volume’s promise and once again the excellent Maggini Quartet bring their impressive qualities of youth, technical excellence and intellectual grasp to bear on these sometimes complex scores. (MusicWeb International), and the praise has not stopped for subsequent volumes.

“Volume three in Maxwell Davies’s cycle of 10 quartets finds the Maggini Quartet playing with such nerve-shredding intensity one dare hardly breathe.”(Classic FM 5 STARS)

The impetus continued with Volume 4: “Max's cycle of 10 quartets is turning into the most marvellous distillation of a lifetime's creativity. Each work reveals a concentrated inwardness worthy of late Beethoven.” (Financial Times)

Of the fifth and final volume, released in September 2008, The Sunday Times noted: “The remarkable arrangement between Davies and Naxos, whereby he would compose 10 string quartets for the excellent Magginis to play and record, is crowned by this disc.”

“The Naxos cycle is a 21st-century landmark.” (The Times) “… one of the most impressive musical statements of our time. From the intimate exchanges of four string players Max has drawn a language that contradicts the prevailing notion of music as a medium that needs size and/or volume to make an impact. He has gone back to the classic models, Haydn and Beethoven, and somehow found within himself a creative wellspring that can withstand comparison with theirs. No mean achievement. For those of us who have followed this journey, it has been an immensely rewarding experience. Naxos is to be congratulated for its enterprise—the CDs of each successive quartet-pairing have followed soon after the premiere—and the Maggini Quartet deserves equal recognition for learning so much new and often complex music.” (Financial Times)

And in the end…

Perhaps, though, the most telling comment on the Naxos Quartets comes from the composer himself, who writes of the last movement of the final quartet: “When it becomes clear how the movement might finish, the resolution is left to the listener’s imagination: the dance is simply stopped, with a suspended gesture. This is not a finale—the hornpipe could lead straight back to the opening of Naxos Quartet No. 1, or into something as yet unwritten. There is no double bar-line.”

Naxos Quartets Nos. 1
and 2


Naxos Quartets Nos. 3
and 4


Naxos Quartets Nos. 5
and 6


Naxos Quartets Nos. 7
and 8


Naxos Quartets Nos. 9
and 10


Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Biography & Discography

Interview with Bruce Duffie

Speech given by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies “An education in classical music is not 'elitist'”


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