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Maxwell Davies'
Naxos Quartets 9 and 10 -
applauded by

'... much to admire ...'

Peter Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartets Nos 9 and 10. Maggini Quartet. © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

The composition and recording of Peter Maxwell Davies' ten 'Naxos String Quartets' within five years has been a herculean undertaking and a milestone enterprise unequalled in modern chamber music.

Listen -- Maxwell Davies: Presto (Quartet No 9)
(track 3, 1:49-2:29) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

Whatever your verdict on the outcome I feel confident that this cycle will be accorded a place in the pantheon of chamber music greats; beside Bartók's Six Quartets and Shostakovich's Fifteen.

It is worth remembering Bartók's six were written over a period of thirty years (1909-1939) and the Russian's fifteen took 36 years (1938-1974); their recordings once emerged in a trickle and later in a flood with some groups opting to capture one or two works; while others tackled complete sets.

Hitherto I can think of no ensemble committed to learning, presenting in concert, and recording ten complex works while the ink was scarcely dry on the page. The Maggini excel themselves; largely with leader Laurence Jackson; and in the final quartet with his successor, Lorraine McAslan.

'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.'

Professor Grenville Hancox, Director of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University agreed. During a remarkable series of open rehearsals and workshops involving the composer and the Maggini, hosted at the St Gregory's Centre for Music, Professor Hancox was heard to say, 'This is probably the most significant commission of a series of string quartets since Prince Esterházy employed Haydn to write music for his court.'

It's as well to remind ourselves that though Maxwell-Davies was born in Salford, Lancashire, since 1971 he has been a habituée of the Orkneys (first of Hoy and later Sanday); seventy smaa islands 16km north o Caithness in northern Scotland -- focuses for wind, fog and sea-haar. Since Neolithic times a cavalcade of outsiders have made their home in the island group and its inspiration for the man from Salford is rarely absent for long. (See Orkney Biographies.)

The penultimate quartet, No 9, dedicated to mathematician/politician, and former Lord Mayor of Manchester (1975-1976) Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw (age 91) is the longer and more satisfying of these two. The final (No 10) has been subject to a fair bit of flack for what most commentators regard as its inconclusiveness.

In his defence Maxwell Davies has said; 'in no way must this be a last quartet. I needed to leave the door open: I enjoyed writing the Naxos Quartets so much, and perhaps even learned a thing or two, that more could, in theory, eventually flourish'.

The lengthier movements of Quartet No 9 (1. Allegro; 2. Largo flessibile) might almost stand alone as an independent work. The 'Allegro', was originally intended as two movements so that it eventually became interleaved with largo sections. Throughout the quartet's initial 22 minutes and 15 seconds the music is shot through with sublimated echoes of Maxwell-Davies' childhood in a Manchester targeted and traumatized by war.

Listen -- Maxwell Davies: Allegro (I) (Quartet No 9)
(track 1, 0:07-1:04) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

In his sleeve note the composer categorizes the remaining four movements as (a) a scherzo, (b) a lento, (c) a military march, and (d) a finale. He likens these to a play within a play -- viz; Hamlet with his use of 'The Murder of Gonzago'. The plot of this sub-play closely resembles the actual murder of Hamlet's father, and its primary function is to trap Claudius into revealing his guilt.

The expressive-emotive impact of this work is immensely powerful, its dynamic compass equally so; it embodies both harrowing clamor and poignant desolation -- don't be dissuaded however if you don't feel these straight away -- chances are they'll sneak upon you sooner than you think.

To wind up the cycle Max-Davies decided on a series of dance-style movements, revealing his admiration for Baroque antecedents.

For all the brickbats there's much to admire in the 10th and final Naxos String Quartet and its moments of delectable quirkiness are worth looking out for. The opening 'Broken Reel' is very much in literal 'sturm und drang' mode -- ie storm and urge, storm and longing, or storm and impulse. After a quick deep breath I was particularly taken with Movement 2 -- 'Slow Air and Rant' as the brief, yet splendid 'rant' (an 'outburst that fails to present well-researched or calm argument; and typically lacks proven claims') took hold.

Listen -- Maxwell Davies: Slow Air and Rant (Quartet No 10)
(track 8, 2:11-2:58) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

The meditative 9+ minute 'Passamezzo Farewell' forms an epicenter for his 10th Naxos Quartet, and is dedicated to the memory of Hans Werner Henze's partner, Fausto Moroni, who until his death, aged 63, worked quietly in the garden leaving Henze (born 1926) the freedom to compose. The central 'Adagio' may be a 'pavane', but there's nothing sloppy or maudlin here. To the contrary, after seven minutes, the strings join in forty seconds of unconcealed anger; a movement to cherish.

A brief, disquieting Allegro -- Movement 4 -- is brusque and pugnacious though just prior to the end it slips in a quote from the anonymous 18th Scottish fiddle tune, Deil Stick da Minister.

Listen -- Maxwell Davies: Deil Stick da Minister (Quartet No 10)
(track 10, 2:11-2:29) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

And so to the contentious 'Hornpipe' finale -- quite clearly marked 'Unfinished' on the Naxos back face.

The British music press appear miffed that upon completing a cycle of ten quartets no less a composer than Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music, should fail in bringing the enterprise to its conclusion with a blaze of musical glory. Instead the final 'a tempo' bars just end without ceremony -- no final chords, no graduated fade-out -- just a finish in mid phrase as if the batteries had simply run out. So, what's so bad about that?

Listen -- Maxwell Davies: Hornpipe (Quartet No 10)
(track 11, 4:44-5:44) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

I, for one, feel bound to applaud Klaus Heymann (born Frankfurt am Main, 1936), founder / CEO of Naxos Records -- he showed rare vision in commissioning these ten extraordinary works with guaranteed recordings already gaining the marvellous Maggini Quartet successive awards.

Surely no 21st century innovative coup, in any of the arts, can equal the ten Naxos String Quartets for such sheer daring, commanding breadth, unfaltering performing stamina, and outright compositional mastery.

Copyright © 23 March 2009 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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