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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Naxos Quartets

String Quartet No. 5, Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland (2004) [20:32];
String Quartet No. 6 (2004/5) [35:07]
Maggini Quartet (Laurence Jackson, David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola); Michal Kaznowski (cello)).
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 26-28 May 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557398 [55:39]

Grievous admission, perhaps, but this is my first encounter with the prestigious series of string quartets Naxos commissioned from the Master of the Queen's Music. At least that means that I come to these two works with no preconceived ideas, except of course that the disc has already been widely reviewed, notably by two colleagues here on MusicWeb International.
Whether we like it or not many music lovers remain reluctant to venture very far into contemporary music – taking "contemporary" to mean anything after Mahler – and Naxos is to be congratulated on this brave initiative. I believe many listeners will find these works difficult at first, but a record such as this one will surely encourage them to persevere, perhaps even to be more adventurous and look farther afield.
Quartet No. 6 plays for almost twice as long as No. 5. The first of the six movements – so writes the composer in the accompanying notes – "…is an allegro whose tonality becomes ever clearer" and whilst it is true that the closing stages of the movement are more easily assimilated than the highly dissonant, spiky, Bartókian opening, it remains fairly challenging all the same. The movement ends inconclusively, leading to the short, pizzicato scherzo which follows. The following movement is also a scherzo, with fragments of melody tossed about between the instruments, one in particular, a rhythmic, dance-like figure. The trio section is like a slow dance, over held notes. "The return of the scherzo material is varied" writes the composer, but it would be instructive to see the score – and not only for this reason – as I no longer hear the dance-like figure amongst the ghostly, sul ponticello effects which bring the movement to its close. The fourth movement is the longest, beginning with a lengthy, richly scored lyrical passage. A middle section is bitingly dissonant and a striking passage towards the end involves four cadenzas, one for each instrument. This is the most searching movement of the six, and the one which best demonstrates the link with late Beethoven to which the composer alludes in his notes, as the music addresses weighty matters after the manner of a great Beethoven adagio. The fifth movement, based on a Christmas plainsong – and composed on Christmas Day: do composers ever take time off? – comes as gentle relief after such searching intensity. The  composer refers to it as "a simple carol". The astringency of the opening returns for the finale, building up a good head of steam before the end which makes dramatic use, as does the whole quartet, of tremolando writing.
Quartet No. 5 is a less demanding listen but I wonder if it not more difficult to discern the composer's aims than in the later one? Sadly, his notes will be of little help to the average listener. Of the main section of the first movement he writes "I have tried to lead the ear through quite complex and constant transformations in such a way that it remains always clear how the expansions and contractions of linear contour relate, and where in our journey we are in relation to the tonic, and to its dominant and subdominant, or their displaced substitutes." Quite so, but to what extent a listener unable to read the score can follow such arguments – and there is more where they came from – remains to be seen. The actual musical argument is coherent and logical though, and the variety of sound and texture the composer draws from the four instruments is always striking. A listener ready simply to submit to the music will therefore not need to worry about technical aspects, rewarding though it might well be to study them later. In only two movements, the opening sonorities of the quartet, with much glissando writing, are beguiling. The second movement is half as long again as the first, and predominantly slow and meditative. Only to a very limited extent can I perceive, for the moment, just how it comes to use "the same material entirely" as the first movement "and with the same form." Again it is preferable at this stage simply to allow the music to lead the ear along. The end of the work, a long diminuendo disappearing into nothing with glissando and pizzicato, is particularly affecting, evoking as it does the "sweeping beam of the North Ronaldsay lighthouse dissolving into the first light of dawn".
The performances by the Maggini Quartet are beyond praise and the recording is immediate and lifelike. The disc is presented to the usual high Naxos standard, and whilst it is logical and prestigious that the composer should provide the insert note I do wish his essay had been more accessible to the general reader. After three hearings of each quartet I am still only beginning to get to know and understand them, but the music is compelling and invites rehearing. My initial impressions were of music that I would learn to respect rather than love, but each time I discover moments of beauty that I hadn't heard before. Those readers still hesitant about "contemporary" music and ready for a challenge are warmly encouraged to try this disc.
William Hedley

see also reviews by Colin Clarke and Hubert Culot

British Composers on Naxos page 




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