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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Naxos Quartets: No. 1 (2002) [29’35]; No. 2 (2003) [53’05].
Maggini Quartet (Laurence Jackson, David Angel, violins; Martin Outram, viola; Michal Kaznowski, cello).
Rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, on September 30th-October 2nd, 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557396 [72’39]

There is hope for contemporary music yet. Naxos has embarked on its most laudable enterprise to date, the commissioning and recording of a series of string quartets by that ex-enfant terrible, Peter Maxwell Davies. Moreover, the chosen ensemble is the youthful, expert Maggini Quartet, which has already established its credentials in a series of recordings for Naxos (including Bridge, Bax, Moeran, Bliss and Vaughan Williams). Maxwell Davies brings with him tougher terrain, though. It is a pleasure to report that this disc is almost beyond criticism.

Great also that the author of the booklet notes is none other that Maxwell Davies himself, letting us into his world and offering eminently followable listening guides. Further information about the composer can be found on his superb website, MaxOpus (

The first Naxos Quartet dates from 2002. Dedicated to Maxwell Davies’ manager of 27 years, Judy Arnold, it was premièred by the Maggini Quartet at the Wigmore Hall in October 2002. No surprise, perhaps, that the figure of Haydn is there in the background, especially in the sonata-form machinations of the first movement: Allegro, complete with Adagio introduction. Maxwell Davies links the very opening with the parallel point in Beethoven’s F sharp major piano sonata - too much of a stretch for my imagination). The ghostly introduction gives way to a rigorous, angular exposition that clearly means business. The Maggini Quartet captures the flighty aspect of this music beautifully and just listen to the fragmentary chordal passage around six minutes in, how marvellously it is balanced, how in tune … There is a real lyrical undercurrent detectable here.

The Largo begins as a Passacaglia, interrupted by a tremolo solo cello. Maxwell Davies presents the listener with two ‘types’ of music, slow and stately (‘reminiscent of Jacobean dance music, as if a chest of viols were subtly present’ – Maxwell Davies) and its violent extreme ‘other side’, elusive, explosive and fragmentary with large timbral contrasts. The two types eventually effect an understanding.

After two movements each over 13 minutes duration, the finale is a mere two minutes long. Suggested, ‘by a strong breeze through dry heather’, the composer himself says it is ‘too short’, evaporating before anything much has happened to its material. Its primary function is to act as a veil-like counterfoil to the long first two movements, but it also reaches forward, to be ‘brought back from the stratosphere’ in the Third Quartet.

The Second Quartet, first performed in the Pump Room, Cheltenham in July 2003, is a fine composition. A slow introduction defines registral spaces to be filled in later; a D minor cadence ‘signposts clearly the end of the first subject group’. Audible formal coherence is obviously important to the composer, then. Berg used similar procedures (most obviously in the Piano Sonata, Op. 1), an interesting reference as some of the more intense passages recall Bergian expressionism without making overt reference to the harmonic language.

As far as any reference to Haydnesque playfulness goes, this is the play of a child that can easily become petulant and impatient.

The slow movement (Lento flessibile) begins with a lovely, beautifully recorded sniff (presumably from the first violinist). Here Bergian expressionism is at its height (listen out also for the wonderful feeling of stasis at around 4’24). The intense dotted rhythms of the short (4’45) Allegro third movement pave the way for a second ‘Lento flessible’. Balancing the first movement in length, this shows Maxwell Davies as a master of his craft. Textures are shifting, but beautifully rather than restfully so. It is like listening to a slowly breathing organism, and the control the Maggini Quartet summons up in creating this image is remarkable. I remain somewhat dissatisfied by the very end, a crescendo of intensity as well as of volume, on a unison, the effect of which is almost dismissive of the listener.

But this is a superb, vitally important disc. Naxos is to be congratulated on their foresight in aiding the creation of a cycle of quartets that promises so much. The world premiere of Naxos Quartet No. 5 (and the London premiere of No. 4) will take place at the Wigmore Hall, London on Wednesday, 20 October 2004.

Colin Clarke

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