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Peter Maxwell DAVIES (b. 1934)
Naxos Quartet No. 1 (2002) [29:25]
Naxos Quartet No. 2 (2003) [43:05]
Maggini Quartet
Recorded: Potton Hall, Suffolk, September-October 2003
NAXOS 8.557396 [72:39]

After completing his ten Strathclyde Concertos, all recorded either by Unicorn or by Collins Classics (both deleted and surely in line for reissue) as well as his eight symphonies, Maxwell Davies embarked on a new series of ten string quartets. These were commissioned by Naxos, to be performed and recorded by the Maggini Quartet. At the time of writing, the half of this rather unusual work in progress has been completed. No mean undertaking, anyway, that – when completed – might well compare to Shostakovich’s, Holmboe’s or Simpson’s output for the medium. In the insert notes, PMD boldly admits that "it was the architectural challenges which preoccupied [me]". He goes on to say that this "enabled [me] to think from the outset of an architecture spanning the whole cycle... [I] feel like a novelist..." (Sorry for these long quotes!) It is thus quite clear that there will be much interrelated material shared by the ten Naxos Quartets; and this means, too, that a proper assessment will only be possible after the completion of the cycle. In short, the task will be much harder when dealing with such a long-term undertaking than when assessing each of the string quartets composed by Bartók, Frankel, Shostakovich or Simpson, for each of their quartets was conceived as a self-standing piece of music rather than as "a chapter from a novel". It will need some experienced and dedicated analyst to see clearly through such intricately worked-out material. So, what are we to do with what is only parts of a much larger and more ambitious scheme? I think that the most suitable reaction at present is to consider each Naxos Quartet as a single piece of music, leaving the global analysis of the cycle to some real master analyst (which I am not, I hasten to say).

The Naxos Quartet No.1 is in three movements playing for about thirty minutes. The movements’ layout, however, is rather unusual: two fairly long movements capped by a miniature finale. The first movement opens with a slow, hushed introduction leading into the Allegro section in which the basic material is intricately worked-out. The second movement, predominantly slow, "starts out as a passacaglia that at times branches out towards different directions before the music eventually settles down as "participants have come to an agreement". The final Scherzo (playing for a mere 2 minutes) suggested by a strong breeze through dry heather, fizzes briefly and quietly until the music evaporates into thin air without any real sense of finality. "This scherzo will be brought back from the stratosphere... in the Third Quartet". So, we will have to wait to see what comes out of it.

The Naxos Quartet No.2, the longest so far, lays for some forty minutes, and is on the whole more traditionally structured than its predecessor, although its four-movement layout somewhat differs from the traditional pattern. The opening movement is much comparable to that of the First Quartet, i.e. a slow introduction leading into an Allegro section. The middle movements (a slow movement and a Scherzo) are clearly related and separated by a brief pause. The concluding Lento is another substantial piece of music that – again – leaves many questions unanswered.

So, in short, judging by what we hear here and by what we know of the completed quartets (five so far), the Naxos Quartets will be a considerable achievement by any count, although some of the forthcoming "chapters" are to be somewhat shorter,. The two works here are substantial pieces of music, structurally complex, which does not mean that the music itself is intractable, i.e. from the listener’s point of view. These, however, are complex scores that need and generously repay repeated hearings. They receive dedicated performances from the Maggini Quartet who have been and still are closely involved in this unique undertaking.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Colin Clarke [Recording of the Month - October]

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