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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Naxos Quartets: No. 5, Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland (2004) [20'32]; 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]



The significance of Maxwell Davies' 'Naxos' Quartet cycle should not be underestimated. This is music by a composer whose imagination is undimmed - even if the notoriety of his earlier years has reverse-transmogrified into communications of a more approachable nature. The Maggini Quartet plays these scores with such empathy it is as if they have lived with this music for decades.

Late in 2004 I was impressed by the first volume of the series, a Musicweb International Recording of the Month (see review). Volume 2 was just as awe-inspiring (see review). Coming to Volume 3, I see no reason to adjust my impressions. The Magginis remains just as technically impressive and emotionally expressive. The recording (Andrew Walton and Eleanor Thomason) is appropriate to its subject matter rather close, acting to emphasise the expressionist nature of these works.

'Expressionist' seems a very apt tag much of this is like Berg ... but with extra Berg added. I wonder if No. 5 is the first string quartet ever to have a lighthouse in its subtitle? The reference here is to the nocturnal sweep of the light as well as to the individual 'calls' of the lighthouses; each one having an individual rhythm. The excellent booklet notes by the composer refer to 'dominants' and 'sub-dominants' before adding the important qualifier 'or their substitutes'. Whatever the generating factors, there is no doubting the underlying lyric impulse just as there is no ignoring the ever-fascinating, always shifting sonic land/sea -scape we are given. Having the chance to subject it to repeated hearings only emphasised the sense of greatness I gleaned at its Wigmore Hall World premiere (see review).

The Fifth Quartet is in only two movements, a Largo and a Lento. Despite the similarity in tempo indication, there is more of a tendency towards the Urschrei in the Lento, and if anything the concentration is screwed even further; the Maggini never let it drop for an instant. Throughout all of this there is a clear and coherent musical language.

The Sixth Quartet reintroduced Max's fascination with Plainsong: Domenica Tertia Adventurus Antiphona for the second movement and In Die Nativitatis for the fifth, incidentally written on Christmas Day. Stasis/active juxtapositions are very marked in the first movement, while the second, despite its Plainsong roots, seems to flirt with jazz. Perhaps this is to emphasise the contrast with the aching, hyper-expressive Adagio molto two movements later. A hushed viol consort reference for In Die Nativitatis is hugely effective before an active, almost dancing finale closes another fascinating quartet from Max's pen.

Superb as we have come to expect from the Naxos/Maggini combination. More than that, this is important. The composer/record company marriage is leading to things which may with justification be referred to as 'great'.

Colin Clarke


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