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The Maggini Quartet in conversation with Richard Adams

Editor's Note: The Maggini Quartet has became one of the most admired quartets due to their popular recordings of British chamber music for the Naxos label. Although their repertoire extends far beyond the music of Great Britain, it is for their interpretations of British composers that they have been so rightly honored. You would expect the Maggini to record the works of Britten, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton (all of whom they have done brilliantly), but it is for their dedication to the works of lesser-known British composers (Moeran, Bliss, Bridge and, of course, Bax) that makes this series so important. Baxians are eagerly awaiting the release of the Maggini's recordings of Bax's three string quartets. The first volume will be released later this year. I appreciate the members of the Maggini Quartet taking the time to answer several questions about British music and playing the Bax quartets. In particular, I want to thank David Angel (Second Violin) for organizing and writing down the player's responses.

The Maggini Quartet: In 1994, the Quartet was asked to perform the chamber works of E. J. Moeran at the Tudeley Festival near Tunbridge Wells. At that time we were not familiar with Moeran's works, but from the first play-through we were struck by their beauty. As a joint venture with the producer, Andrew Walton, we produced two master tapes: one of Moeran, and one of Frank Bridge's short works for quartet, with which we were familiar. Naxos took them, and asked us to record anything English which we deemed worthy.

Richard Adams: Had any of the members of the Maggini had an interest in this repertoire before the series began?

The Maggini Quartet: Our viola player, Martin Outram, had long been a champion of British music, performing and recording much neglected British viola repertoire.

Richard Adams: Had any rarely-played British chamber works (i.e. the Bax, Moeran and Vaughan Williams) been in the Maggini's repertoire prior to the series with Naxos?

The Maggini Quartet: As mentioned earlier, both the Moeran and the short works for quartet by Bridge were in our repertoire, as was the Phantasy quintet of Vaughan Williams.

Richard Adams: How do the members agree upon which works the Quartet will play and record and how much influence has Naxos had in selecting the works you've recorded? Would the Maggini actually have played and recorded the quartets of Moeran, Bax and Bridge if Naxos hadn't asked you to do it?

The Maggini Quartet: From the Walton Quartet and Piano Quartet recording onwards, the series has been funded by Select Music and Video Distribution Ltd, and any direct discussions about repertoire have been with them. With both them and Naxos it has been the case that we proposed and they agreed. Had it not been for the spur of a recording we might not have thought of composers such as Vaughan Williams, Bax, and Bliss for concert repertoire as they are not obvious choices for music clubs. However, we now look forward with relish to each new project. Considering how quartets can argue about repertoire, we have had remarkably little discussion about which composer to embark upon next. We started with better known composers to establish the series, and then moved on to music of equal value by less familiar figures.

Richard Adams: How do you prepare a quartet for performance? How much time do you spend in individual practice and how much time do you spend rehearsing together before a work is ready to be played live?

The Maggini Quartet: There is no hard and fast rule to this, except that almost every work needs hours of individual practice and a lot of rehearsal together. As a quartet, we meet for three hours minimum almost every day to keep our quartet constitution in trim, so that we can put certain things in place very quickly. However, works such as Britten's second quartet, Bax's second quartet, Bliss's second quartet, and for the viola in particular, Vaughan Williams's second quartet, can take months to conquer, and provide an intense examination of one's ability both as a quartet and individually. First performances (and second and third), always happen before you are ready for them, but are a vital part of the learning process.

Richard Adams: How do the members of the Quartet reach a consensus over technical matters such as tempo, dynamics and balances?

The Maggini Quartet: Through discussion, argument sometimes heated and loud, and most healthily, trial and error; error being every bit as educational, and sometimes more so, than immediate success.

Richard Adams: Your custom is to take those works you are about to record 'out on the road' first. When do you know a work is ready for the studio?

The Maggini Quartet: We feel happiest about committing a work to disc for posterity when in performance, we can easily feel the shape or narrative of the whole piece, and feel that we have carried the audience with us in that. Also when we know that there are no (or very very few) passages either individually or as quartet that do not bear very close inspection! Deadlines, however, come what may and call for forward planning. This means we are often preparing two discs ahead.

Richard Adams: How important is it when preparing a work by a less familiar composer to become familiar with a large cross-section of that composer's music (including chamber, orchestral, solo, choral)? Is anything gained by this practice?

The Maggini Quartet: We might each give a different answer to this. Personally (David Angel), I have found that listening to and reading about the various composers has helped nurture my interest in and sympathy with them. To take a specific example, we all heard and felt Britten's third quartet more fully having each listened to Death in Venice, which the quartet quotes.

Richard Adams: It appears the Maggini has set out to record a sampling of works by most of the important British composers of the 20th Century. Are there any British composers that as a group you just can't bear and won't record?

The Maggini Quartet: There may be one or two, but I'm not mentioning any names. It is very, very important to believe wholeheartedly in any work one is performing, and thus far, this has definitely been the case with us.

Richard Adams: As you've familiarized yourself with so much British chamber music, are there any works that stand out for you all as absolute masterpieces and worthy to stand alongside those greatest works in the form (i.e. the quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich)?

The Maggini Quartet: This is a very hard one for us to answer as the whole project has been a mind-expanding experience, discovering marvellous works that we hadn't known. To a great degree, we fall in love with each new work that we tackle, and don't compare it with any other. If we had to pick our 'Desert Island Discs' to go alongside Bartok for instance, each of us might well choose differently! Mine (David Angel) would be Britten's third and Vaughan Williams's second quartets.

Richard Adams: Whose idea was it to record the quartets of Bax?

The Maggini Quartet: Ours.

Richard Adams: Bax is far better known for his orchestral music than for his chamber music. Is there any reason why this is so?

The Maggini Quartet: I think this merely reflects the general position of chamber music as against orchestral music with the exception of those composers who have specialised in the former such as Haydn or Robert Simpson. It also reflects the difficulties at times of acquiring the music!

Richard Adams: Bax is one of those composers whose music divides opinion. Were you all in agreement that the Bax quartets should be revived or was there some resistance?

The Maggini Quartet: Once having played through the first quartet and having known the oboe quintet and piano quartet, we were all in agreement because of the richness of invention in the music.

Richard Adams: Is there anything about Bax's chamber music that makes it unusual or stand out from those works by his contemporaries?

The Maggini Quartet: Bax's music is unlike any of his contemporaries, though there may be occasional passages that evoke Vaughan Williams, Delius or Moeran, but he is more richly exotic than any of them. It makes his quartets hard to work out from the point of balance and intonation, as there is so much of interest going on at any one time, but it is well worth the trouble.

Richard Adams: Bax's symphonies have often been criticized for being rhapsodic and even poorly structured. Would it be possible to say the same about his quartets?

The Maggini Quartet: This reminds us of criticisms of Schuman's orchestration, or Tchaikovsky's "orchestral" quartets. No: the structures of the quartets are very thoroughly worked out. The first quartet is straight forward. The third, long as it is, has a motivic connection between all four movements. It would be impossible to shorten it. The second quartet's form is much harder to decipher and we felt a bit like detectives when we found the recapitulation of the first movement, but the form of this is logical and not rambling.

Richard Adams: The Maggini is recording two volumes of Bax for Naxos and they include the three quartets. What can those coming to the Bax quartets for the first time expect to find?

The Maggini Quartet: Vastly more than the Celtic twilight for which he is known. I think they would find the richest, most varied and colourful evocation of nature.

Richard Adams: Do any of you believe Bax's chamber music has the potential to become more popular with listeners and players?

The Maggini Quartet: Provided that the players have really taken the trouble, then the music should certainly become more popular with listeners. Players need to take the trouble to sort out the narrative from the endlessly beautiful counter subjects, and have the same respect for Irish and English folk music within the context of 'classical' music as they might have for Hungarian or Russian folk music. The English music of the first 50 years of the 20th Century has suffered neglect from the musical establishment since the mid-1950s and is an essential link in our musical heritage.

Richard Adams: Some Baxians believe his greatest chamber work is the massive Piano Quintet. Is there any chance you may turn your attentions to that work (as well as the Piano Quartet)? If so, who would be your ideal pianist?

The Maggini Quartet: We would very much hope to make that disc, almost certainly with Peter Donohoe with whom we have collaborated on many occasions, particularly in recordings of Elgar and Walton.

Richard Adams: Has Naxos approached any of you to record the sonatas? We are long over-do for a recording of the Viola Sonata? Any interest there?

The Maggini Quartet: Martin Outram and his pianist, Julian Rolton, will record Bliss's viola sonata as part of our second Bliss disc in December and I am certain that they would jump at the chance of the Bax Sonata, which Martin loves.

Richard Adams: How have audiences responded to hearing the Bax quartets live? I understand the First has been especially popular.

The Maggini Quartet: Audiences have responded very well to Bax's quartets. The First was extremely popular from our maiden performance. The Third became more popular the more clearly we understood and communicated the pacing of it. We had little chance to perform the second but when we did, the audience, mercifully, found it much easier to hear than we found it to play.

Richard Adams: I see from the programs that you frequently sandwich the Bax quartets between more standard repertoire. How does Bax fare being sandwiched between Beethoven and Haydn?

The Maggini Quartet: Bax fares as well in this sort of programme as any work from the last century. Owing to its length, we have performed the third quartet as the sole item in the first half of the concert. The audience is at its freshest to take in something new and they seemed to have appreciated it.

Richard Adams: What other composers can we expect to hear from the Maggini in the coming years?

The Maggini Quartet: We are scheduled to record two further discs each of Bliss and Bridge and one of the John Ireland. After that, if Select are willing, there is a multitude of exciting choices for us, including further discs of Bax, Vaughan Williams and Butterworth.

Copyright c The Maggini Quartet and Richard Adams

This article appears in The British Music Society News 91 (September 2001), edited by Rob Barnett ( Reprinted with permission. Maggini Quartet


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