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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Maggini String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, Wednesday, October 20th, 2004 (CC)


After being pretty much bowled over by the Naxos issue of the first two Quartets by Maxwell Davies in his projected cycle of ten, the prospect of one World Première and one UK premiere of the most recent instalments was a mouth-watering one. Maxwell Davies refers to his set of quartet in fascinating terms that make them a true cycle. Calling them ‘more ten chapters of a novel’, characters from one are therefore likely to appear between quartets. It will be fascinating to experience them as a cycle.

The Fifth Naxos Quartet was composed earlier this year and so appears hot off the press. This was the quartet receiving the World Premiere last night. It carries a subtitle. ‘Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland’, referring both to the sweeping beam of light and also to the ‘calls’ used by lighthouses (i.e. rhythmic flashing of the light). Time and time again the image of the illuminated shifting waters that surround such lighthouses was invoked (in this listener’s mind, at least).

Set in two movements, the work lasts just over twenty minutes. Interestingly, in his notes, the composer refers to ‘tonic’ (B flat is ‘the unambiguous tonic of the whole work’, and to C minor, a ‘wrong’ tonality with which the first movement ends). Yet this is no retreat to some sort of easy-going post-tonality, where directional forces are weakened and the tonality might recur as a structurally articulating force; neither is it the somewhat anonymous ‘new tonality’ one sometimes stumbles upon (and hastily moves on from). Rather any references there might be, Maxwell Davies has fully integrated into his own, complex but never unfathomable, language.

Structurally, even on first hearing the overall shape was manifestly clear. A short slow introduction leads to a lilting faster main sonata section. The musical surface is elusive, constantly shifting, yet the end of the exposition was obviously marked. A recapitulation (after a short development) recalls both the slow introduction and the exposition.

The second movement (a slow movement) uses the same musical material and indeed the same form as the first. Intense, closely-scored harmonies underscore a long, lyrical and high first violin melody. As the movement progressed, I found myself asking whether it is these works that Maxwell Davies will be remembered for, rather than the infamous, often disturbing early works.

The twenty-five minute Fourth Naxos Quartet received its London Premiere. The programme reproduced the inspiration for this work, a Bruegel painting of around 1560 called ‘Children’s Games’ (indeed, Maxwell Davies seemed to use this, in his introductory spiel, as this quartet’s subtitle, although no such usage was apparent in the programme. The painting can be viewed online here).

As the composer states, during the course of the creative act the games became more adult in nature (aggression and war etc … a reference perhaps to the Fourth Naxos Quartet, written in response to – and in opposition to – what Maxwell Davies calls the ‘illegal invasion of Iraq’). The Bruegel in question plays with perspectives and juxtapositions, and in like manner Maxwell Davies plays with leading the ear to ‘sound equivalents of strange passageways and closed rooms’. A theme in octaves opens proceedings (announcing pitch/melodic/cellular material) before a more playful mood takes over. Sudden outbreaks of energy create a real activity/stasis play (redemptive girls’ play against the more rough-house boys games, as the composer put it). All this is set in a world that at times becomes explicitly phantasmagoric, even (somewhat surreally) invoking a viol consort at one point. However the music at no point meanders; climaxes are well-defined. Always there is the impression that, while Maxwell Davies’ structures and, to a certain extent, his musical metamorphoses and processes are quickly aurally graspable, there is much to be discovered at subsequent hearings.

The Maggini Quartet had obviously lavished much care (and rehearsal time) on these performances. (The Haydn Quartet that was sandwiched by the Maxwell Davies works (the String Quartet in D, Op. 71/2 of 1793) appeared less as light relief, more as an indication that works from major quartet composers, some two hundred-plus years apart, could acknowledge each other in a meaningful way across the centuries.) The Maggini Quartet played the Haydn with evident affection, great warmth of tone as well of spirit and with an undercurrent of joy.

A pre-concert event featured three quartets by three young composers. Max was there to introduce each work, the composers were there to take the applause, and the Kreutzer Quartet were there to give each score the best possible reading. Indeed, the Kreutzer Quartet, which specialises in works of living composers, played excellently (although in warmth of tone and in terms of sheer confidence they were eclipsed by the Maggini later on).

Paul Mitchell’s 18-minute Cain (a Celtic prayer based around the principle of encompassing – a symbolic circle drawn around a supplicant) used a harmonic sequence that mirrored this concept in musical terms. Dream-like in effect, Maxwell Davies talked about this work’s ‘febrile intensity’. Christopher Woodley’s 15-minute Quartet for Strings revealed an expressionist basis (Schoenberg’s first three quartets) and a commendably consistent internal harmonic language. Finally Andrew Lewis’ Tempo Reale refers to audience listening strategies (i.e. how we ‘listen’ to music), and the score ‘invites’ the listener to interpret what we hear either by singling out lines or by hearing the sounds a one entity (but isn’t this something that concerns almost all of Western music?). Despite a rather verbose programme note (thankfully I was not privy to this at the performance itself), it is actually a work of much energy. For all his philosophising, it was the scrunchiness of his harmonies and the buzzing excitement of much of the work that remains.

Colin Clarke


Colin Clarke

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