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ClassicsOnline Home » MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Naxos Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Maggini Quartet)
Peter Maxwell Davies is universally acknowledged as one of the foremost composers of our time, and is currently Master of the Queen’s Music. Plainchant, musical tradition and the haunting landscape of his adopted Orkney Islands all serve as inspiration to Maxwell Davies’ extraordinary and fecund imagination. This CD launches a remarkable and possibly unique commission from Naxos for ten String Quartets, each to be premièred live and subsequently recorded by the Maggini Quartet.
By Christian Carey
Splendid E-zine (www.splendidezine.com)
By Andrew Achenbach
By Peter Palmer
Nottingham Evening Post
UK Naxos Quotes December 2004
"And the Magginis sound quite magnificent."
Although filtering the extraordinary light, weather and
seascape of Orkney through the comparatively
restricted medium of the string quartet was of huge
interest, it was architectural challenges which
preoccupied me in the composition of the first Naxos
Quartet, in three movements. I am very aware that this
is the first in a sequence of ten quartets, which enabled
me to think from the outset of an architecture spanning
the whole cycle. I feel like a novelist who issues a book
chapter by chapter at regular intervals in the pages of a
periodical. This feeling is not entirely new. When I
reached Symphony No. 4, in 1989, I realised that I was
midway in a sequence of seven symphonies, and could
henceforth design the architecture of the remaining
three with unusually strong interconnections and
through-planning, eventually making the end of No. 7
loop back into the opening of No. 1.
The first slow bars of the Quartet recall the mood of
the start of Beethoven’s F sharp major piano sonata, in
that they provide a nostalgic glimpse into a “safe” world
of the past. The precise point of that world is the middle,
slow section of my third Strathclyde Concerto, also of
1989. This material was subjected to a process of
transformation through a twelve-unit “most perfect
pandiagonal magic square”. Perhaps this sounds more
daunting than it is – it works as a catalyst to musical
invention, engendering enough related but varied basic
rhythmic and melodic outline for the whole series, with
due harmonic accountability. The methods of
application, the degrees of rigour for sections with
different architectural functions within the grand design,
would be the proper material for a composition seminar,
hardly for a programme note. Suffice to say that the
discipline involved in the increasing awareness of
constituent symmetries, with audible choices to be made
at each juncture in each parameter, liberated fantasy and
freedom of composition. This square is one I have
exploited over many years, and although its workings
have become very familiar indeed, I am still astonished
at new evolutions. It is like an ever-fruitful vine,
copiously bearing new grapes.
The exposition of this first movement is based on
classical models: Haydn looms large, with the energetic
first subject, and a more contemplative second subject
group. A ghost of the four opening slow measures leads
to a “repeat” of this exposition – the harmonic regions
traversed are the same, the thematic material is at least
similar, and although the individual bar and phrase
lengths are often dissimilar, the two expositions in toto
are isometric. It amounts to an alternative exposition.
These two expositions will be quoted as necessary and
developed in later quartets.
A variation of the opening slow figure leads to a
short section of three ascending phrases, with the first
violin having the main part, summarising the contents of
the double exposition, and it is upon this short section
that the ensuing development is based. This has three
parts, first a “classical” section, with modulation,
various types of counterpoint, the breaking down and
rebuilding of material, in a reworking of Germanic
developmental style. The second part employs pure
thematic transformation, the third is continuous
variations-in-reverse, that is the gradual stripping down
of by now quite complex material, rather than the usual
process, in “variations”, of adding to a simple outline an
ever-increasing decorative overlay. This is the most
dramatic section of the movement. At the close, the
material has distilled to the near vanishing; there could
not be, after this, any recapitulation.
The second movement starts out as a passacaglia;
this holds good until the tremolo on solo cello.
Harmony and rhythm move at a stately pace reminiscent
of Jacobean dance music, as if a chest of viols were
subtly present. Once the other three instruments have
established the framework, the first violin makes a
delayed entry, suggesting a “slow air”, such as one
might hear in a contemplative moment in an Orkney
folk fiddle gathering. This is contrasted absolutely by a
section taking to even further extremes the contrasts of
the last part of the first movement. There are violent
contracts of pace, texture and material very close
together. I think of it as a dramatic recitative, where the
participants are nowhere close to mutual understanding.
The calm passacaglia returns, in varied guise, but the
thematic shapes begin to assume characteristics of those
of the previous recitative.
As the second movement progresses, the two moods
and the two kinds of material coalesce gradually, so that
by the final unisons, the participants have come to an
understanding, and the originally contrasting sections
have assumed one identity.
The physical sound of the third movement was
suggested by a strong breeze through dry heather, as
well as referring obliquely to a well-known Chopin
piano sonata finale. It is “too short”… it evaporates at
the end, disappearing beyond the upper limits of the
audible register of the instruments, before very much
has happened to the material at all. It is a scherzo, very
fast and quiet with its thematic discourse continuing that
of the middle movement. I felt it was enough, in these
particular circumstances, after the concentrated nature
of the previous movements. This scherzo will be
brought back from the stratosphere (where I imagine it
to continue, inaudibly) and its conversation, started
here, taken up again, in the Third Quartet.
This quartet is dedicated to my Manager of 27
years, Judy Arnold.
The second of the series of ten quartets
commissioned by Naxos records was finished in
January, 2003. It has four movements: the second and
third are closely related, and separated by only a very
brief pause, and the first is the most substantial.
A slow, hushed introduction defines the outlines of
harmonic and rhythmic spaces which the first
movement, and indeed the whole work, will fill out.
One hears the shapes at a distance, as if enshrouded in
fog. The Allegro proper has a firm initial nine-bar
sentence, where Scottish dance rhythms prevail,
followed by what I think of as its shadow, a pianissimo
echo, where the phrases within the sentence are now
divided by short insertions, foreshadowing second
subject harmonies. A D minor cadence signposts clearly
the termination of the first subject. The second subject
group has four sections of contrasting natures, of which
the last, in a defining sequence of chords, clinches the
tonal space – the ultimate C minor chord functions
clearly, I hope, as an F minor dominant, within the
discipline of a most perfect pandiagonal magic square.
A Germanic, in the classical sense, development
follows; do not be deceived by the premature return to
D minor, and what seems to be the initiation of a second
exposition with inverted material – this is a trap, merely
triggering the next developmental procedures. This
whole section suggests to me a maze of mirrors, some
distorting. Where the recapitulation is expected, I have
placed the mere ghost of a scherzo, all in pianissimo,
which bridges into and prepares the harmonic ground
for a coda. This coda refers back to the end of the
exposition, but dwells on the augmented fourth away
from the D tonic, as outlined in the first bars of the
introduction, and of the Allegro. The joined up melodic
line suggests that the whole movement has ultimately
been monothematic, all along.
The second movement has two parts, a recitative,
full of drama and contrast, and a short, expressive
arioso. A scherzo proper follows directly: I thought of
this as an Intermezzo, offering some gentle relief. It
ends with a brief reference to the opening of the second
movement, underlining the unity in diversity of the pair.
The fourth is a slow movement, and builds gradually,
and I would like to think, inevitably, to the harmonic
core and crystallisation of the processes set in motion.
The final AC diad mediates quite decisively between
the dominant of D minor, and a major resolution of F
This quartet is dedicated to the composer Ian
Kellam. He was my first musical friend, when we both
played our compositions on BBC Children’s Hour,
more than fifty years ago.
© Peter Maxwell Davies 2002 & 2003
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