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Blair Sanderson, June 2011

The Naxos commission for ten string quartets by Peter Maxwell Davies yielded works that display extraordinary variety and versatility, from a composer famous for redefining eclecticism. Issued in five volumes and performed by the Maggini Quartet, who gave the quartets their premieres and then recorded them immediately afterwards, the cycle is a major coup for the label, and something of a rarity, for recording companies are seldom in a position to take a chance on sponsoring something so monumental and daring. Maxwell Davies hadn’t composed any string quartets for more than twenty years, but his creative powers were undiminished and his technical skills were never sharper. Without advanced hearing of these works, one might guess that Maxwell Davies would have borrowed heavily from the past, whether from the 18th century works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, or from the 20th century masterpieces by Bartók and Shostakovich. Yet while their spirits are clearly present, Maxwell Davies is quite subtle in his references and instead pays homage to the tradition in his handling of independent voices, balancing of proportions, and use of familiar forms, with the music brought up-to-date with modern harmonies, extended instrumental techniques, variegated timbres, and modified tonality. The Maggini Quartet pays close attention to all the fine points, and their dedicated playing gives these works a strong feeling of authority and permanence. Naxos’ recording is vivid and transparent, at its best for such an important undertaking. The 2011 box set brings the five original albums together into one convenient package.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, March 2010

It was an extraordinary idea; ten quartets to be composed within a period of about five years for one ensemble. Each was to be performed once and then immediately recorded. This was a Naxos brain-wave which also chimed in with Maxwell Davies’s wish to ‘get more into chamber music’. Surely only Maxwell Davies could have fulfilled such a strenuous task and made it so consistently fascinating as he had done with the series of also ten Strathclyde Concertos in the early 1990s.

In fact these were not his first works for String Quartet. Looking through his catalogue I note a Quartet movement of 1952 and a rather cerebral full-scale quartet, if my memory serves me correctly, of 1962. The Naxos project was not officially announced until Maxwell Davies was under way with the Third Quartet. By then he could write his notes and know where he was heading.

This First Quartet sets the tone. The composer in his distinguished but somewhat musicianly notes talks of architectural planning, of seeing the ten works as a whole and indeed of using those pesky magic squares he’s always going on about. But architecture has played a real part before. The Third Symphony of 1984 had on the front cover of its LP recording, a drawing of the floor plan of the Church of St Lorenzo in Florence of Brunelleschi. The composer is also thinking of an overall plan for the ten quartets as, apparently he was for his (first) seven symphonies—not something I had been aware of. This quartet ends half way through the rather elfin Scherzo, which is to be picked up again, Maxwell Davies wrote in 2002, in the Third Quartet—obviously an architectural design was already formed in his mind. The two previous movements are of equal length. The first is rather dramatic and based loosely on sonata-form. The second is often very still and quiet, a real Orkney landscape. It is broken into, by some wild Ivesian tempo-clashes of fortissimo noise, with those mad descending cello figures I recall from the ‘Missa Super L’homme Armé’ of 1968. The work makes a startling opening to the project.

The Second Quartet is a much tougher nut to crack but it’s well worth it. Consisting of four movements it ranks as one of the longest of the ten. The outer movements are of practically equal length with two shorter ones, a slow movement consisting of recitative and arioso and a scherzo and trio in between. The opening movement is in a complex sonata-form which despite the composer’s detailed notes to help the listener through, is still quite difficult to follow. The finale represents a mood of quiet desolation and stillness, a wintry landscape of impenetrable beauty. Even the final shivering F major chord contrives to end with an atmosphere of total bleakness. It is a movement, indeed a quartet, best heard, without any outside distractions. The Magginis surely have its complete measure.

To my mind the Third Quartet sets itself too many compositional problems so that its final aim seems fuzzy and unfocused. The composer willingly admits to setting himself “creative problems whose intricacy and complexity posed new and formidable challenges”. These involved the use of several magic squares connected with Saturn, Mars and Venus and the plainchant for St Cecilia’s feast day ‘Audi filia et vide’. Also an influence is the commencement of the Iraqi war which produced an opening ghostly and frightening March; reminding me of Alban Berg at times. A second movement called ‘In Nomine’ uses, but only at its half-way point, the melody from the Benedictus of Taverner’s ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’ mass as so many renaissance composers had done. Indeed Maxwell Davies himself had done this with his ‘Seven In Nomine’ of 1963. The ‘Inventions on a Hymn’ picks up the truncated Scherzo of the First Quartet and turns it into a gross Burlesque on a hymn tune (not identified). It is marked to be played ‘cloying/nauseating’. This instruction is superbly carried out by the Magginis whose use of vibrato and quarter-tones made me feel quite sick. The ‘Fugue’ finale which uses complex polyphony does not really amount to a fugue at all—at least not as we know it. All of this compressed into the space of half an hour seems disparate and an attempt by the composer to prove to himself that he can do anything. To the listener none of it matters as technique because that’s the composer’s business. If at the end you feel that the work has been a satisfactory experience then fine; for me I was glad to move on.

By the composer’s own admission the Fourth Quartet was written with a view to “something lighter” to get away from the worries of the conflict in Iraq. Its title ‘Children’s Games’ seems appropriate. The inspiration is a rather busy picture of that name by Brueghel. It dates from about 1560 and was found in Vienna. It depicts about 250 children indulging in every imaginable game with all sorts of toys. Yet this quartet is not a roller-coaster of happy chaos. I say this despite the occasional almost fiddler-led whirly-gig of a dance tune that passes across the musical canvas. For much of its time it is in fact somewhat quiet and reflective. The reason is, I think, that if you look carefully at the faces of the children they are in fact adults. The moralising Brueghel is probably warning us not to fritter away our lives as if it were some childhood game. I have the same problem with this quartet as I have with the painting. I’m not sure if I should view it close up or from a distance or even from an angle. Its single movement structure could be divided into several parts or one could take in its fleeting changes of mood and tempo and see them as a patterning across the otherwise unvaried canvas. It’s a disturbing painting and a disturbing quartet. The composer admits that the Iraqi conflict was at the back of his mind—it being “impossible to escape into innocent childhood fantasy”.

The Fifth Quartet was the one in the cycle I first heard. Its subtitle Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland immediately captures the imagination. Its two movements encapsulate the broad sweep of a dramatic seascape pierced by flashes of light. Wind, rain and calm proceed in exciting succession. I found it impressive in 2005 and I still do. Far better this than the earlier attempts at making political statements. At this half-way point the composer’s notes need mentioning. He often mentions key, for example in this work the B flat with which it begins. He talks of “where in our (musical) journey we are in relation to the tonic and to its dominant and subdominant”. Later he tells us that the coda “takes us to the key of C minor—the wrong key”. Now it may well be me—I am a composer myself and I admit I do not have perfect pitch—but I struggle to hear these tonal relationships and perhaps others will too. The composer may well say that these technicalities are really the composer’s business but if so why mention them. On reading his notes many will be put off and baffled. Instead some more general background about the inspiration would have been more helpful. This criticism applies not just to this work but to all of the liner-notes.

It’s helpful to know that the Sixth Quartet was written between December 2004 and January 2005 because it uses in its pizzicato second movement—a Scherzo—an Advent plainchant ‘Domenica Tertia, Adventus’. In its peculiarly sotto voce fifth movement there’s a Christmas melody, making a sort of carol written on Christmas Day; just in case you wondered what Maxwell Davies did with his Christmases. He admits to having been studying Beethoven’s late quartets. Perhaps he was thinking of the Op. 130 B flat Quartet when he couched this one also in six movements. He even admits to using a key signature: four flats for F minor at the end of the fourth movement. This is a key often associated with Beethoven and used by the great man for example in the third movement of this same B flat Quartet. Maxwell Davies starts with an agitated Allegro which often has sudden, brutal and Beethovenian dynamic contrasts. Then follow two consecutive Scherzos, a pizzicato one and a slightly longer and rather wild Presto and trio. The ensuing long Adagio is one of Maxwell Davies’s most beautiful slow movements. It’s very lyrical and almost Romantic apart from a violent central outburst. It culminates in wonderful cadenzas for each instrument. The fifth movement is the carol and the sixth balances the first in mood and speed. I don’t know if it’s the effect of his Beethoven studies but this quartet seems much more humane than anything in the first three. In a way it is a little less earnest. Its attractively contrasting material makes it an especial favourite.

Experimentation with form and structure was a sign that Maxwell Davies was growing into his vast task of writing these works. It is also desirable as it militates against the concerns and criticisms of those who might remark that the Naxos Quartets were actually one work written ten times. The Seventh Quartet is quite a development especially in its length. Running to over fifty minutes, it is a challenge to performers and listeners. The fact that all seven movements are either Adagio or Lento, with little speed variation within them is also a challenge. The inspiration behind the quartet is, as with the First Quartet, architecture. This time it’s the seventeenth century genius Francesco Borromini (d.1667). Whilst in Rome—Maxwell Davies was also a student there—in April 2005 he revisited the Borromini churches and one secular building, the Palazzo Falconieri. He has attempted to turn the stone into sound. This he has done by the symbolistic use of plainchants which are then passed through various magic squares. For example the first movement uses ‘Quae est. ista, quae ascendit sicut’ (Who is she, who looketh forth as the morning?). This has been channelled though the magic square of the sun to enhance “its ecstatic impetus”. The second movement uses an idea by the Roman composer Stefano Landi (d.1639) “who might have known Borromini”. Amongst the buildings which form the inspiration for Maxwell Davies’s sound-spaces is the huge ‘S. Giovanni in Laterano’. It’s the only one I, or most tourists, know as one of the major basilicas of Rome possessing medieval artefacts. However, being by Borromini, it is totally baroque, Maxwell Davies quotes medieval melodies which are destroyed and never allowed to grow. The notes tell us in great detail how the composer put these movements together. For example, in the finale we are brought into the dark closing moments of Borromini’s life with his suicide. The troubled surface of the music ends by taking a couple of minutes to ease us back into our own world. It’s an intriguing work, and in some ways the most complex of the entire cycle.

Maxwell Davies comments about the Eighth Quartet that it “is very much the ‘intermezzo’ of the set”. Its shortish length was “determined…so that two quartets should fit snugly onto one compact disc”. I was expecting a fairly light work especially when I read that it was “a tribute to the lutenist and composer John Dowland”. He tells us that “the models were the first and last movements of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ where the main theme is only joined up consecutively to make its identity clear at the final climaxes”. On this occasion Maxwell Davies uses Dowland’s ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard’ which appears in various mainly inaudible guises until it is fully realized very near to the end. To my way of thinking Britten’s ‘Lacrymae’ for strings which also starts quietly and eventually betrays its Dowland melody is the obvious model. I was also expecting a work that brooded less and had more tempo variations, even a fair bit of fast music. I was wrong and found myself wondering if Maxwell Davies is not at his best when he allows himself to be ‘unbuttoned’ as it were. I only wish that he would let in a little Mediterranean sunlight sometimes: the grey of the upper northern hemisphere seems to be unavoidable. Because the quartet uses a Galliard dedicated to the first Queen Elizabeth and possibly because of its shorter length the composer might well have hopes that her present Majesty might listen to a work dedicated to her on her eightieth birthday, and which as the Master of the Queen’s Music seems a diplomatic thing to do.

The dedication of the Ninth Quartet to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw is significant; she is described as “mathematician extraordinary” and is famed for a book catchily entitled “Constructing pandiagonal magic squares of arbitrarily large size”. As you can imagine, this constitutes a significant part of Maxwell Davies’s bedtime reading. Equally importantly, she was Lord Mayor of Manchester in 1975 and she is now almost 100. Maxwell Davies is, in this work, also remembering the Manchester of the war years—the years in which he grew up. He admits to inserting into the piece “violent interruptions” linked with the “raw sounds…of air-raid sirens, the glissandi of falling bombs, the tearing apart and crashing into buildings”. These memories have been “disciplined” into this six movement work. Although these very noises can be heard in movement three the whole piece is suffused with tension and drama. As relief we are also aware of dance-music rhythms of the 1940s in a couple of the movements. All of this makes this quartet especially gripping. Why six movements? I asked myself. The opening two make up two-thirds of the quartet and the next three could be seen to constitute what the composer has called an “independent miniature quartet within a quartet”. These are followed by a fiery finale. Unusual as it is, a pleasing balance has been achieved, and the score’s heading quoted from the ‘Book of Wisdom’ is appropriate: “Thou has ordered all things in measure, and number and weight”.

The composer was anxious that as he had “enjoyed writing the Naxos quartets so much” there would not be a sense of a full-stop indeed there’s a double bar at the end of the finale of the Tenth Quartet. His conclusion was to do something different again—a series of five movements linked historically to the baroque suite but with Scottish Dances. Instead of Gavottes and Minuets Maxwell Davies writes a (Broken) Reel, a Passamezzo (here, oddly a very slow melancholic piece, full of regrets) and at the end an (unfinished) Hornpipe which stops in mid-air. As he says this could “lead straight back to the opening of Quartet 1 or into something as yet unwritten”. It’s altogether a fascinating quartet and one that I will return to more often than some of the others.

The Maggini Quartet are the real heroes. Their herculean task over a five year period cannot be underestimated. Maxwell Davies is indeed very fortunate both in the Naxos commission and in the commitment of the performers. I wonder which one of the ten they might most enjoy or be thrilled to play again. The recordings really cannot be faulted either. It remains now to be seen how, or whether, these works get on in the repertoire which is so full and constantly being added to. For myself Quartets 2, 5, 6 and 10 are the ones which have made an especial appeal to me. These seem to have something quite new to add to the evolution of the form. It would be interesting too, despite the superb advocacy of the Magginis to see if one of top international quartets is willing to tackle at least one of these works and even offer us an alternative recording.

Now that the five discs are boxed together so neatly with all of composer’s notes and for such a modest outlay I can only recommend that you take the plunge and purchase. There is much food for thought locked in this set.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group