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ClassicsOnline Home » MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Naxos Quartets Nos. 9 and 10 (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. His musical idiom has been described by The New York Times as a combination of ‘medieval mysticism, modernist rigour and happy accessibility’. This fifth and final instalment of Maxwell Davies’s 10-quartet cycle commissioned by Naxos opens with Quartet No. 9, dedicated to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, mathematician extraordinary, and sometime Lord Mayor of Manchester, both of which attributes have influenced the content of the work. The composer has written of Quartet No. 10, ‘in no way must this be a last quartet. I needed to leave the door open: I had enjoyed writing the Naxos Quartets so much, and perhaps even learned a thing or two, that more could, in theory, eventually flourish’.
By David Denton
A record label commissioning ten string quartets was a unique event, and it has been rewarded by one of the most important cycles since the quartets of Bartók.
In his younger years the music of the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies showed a fiercely expressionistic style within the realms of atonality modernity. Now enjoying an Indian Summer all of his mature skills have been distillated into music that yields more rewards with each repeated hearing. True, the large-scale Ninth in six movements is more wedded to atonality then anything that has gone before in this cycle. The work is framed by two jagged Allegros of considerable force, the slow and disjointed thematic material used in the slow movement and the ghostly apparitions that flit through the third being characterised by wide mood swings. It is technically demanding music, and, as I have written before, the detailed performances of the Maggini Quartet are the obvious result of meticulous preparation. In his programme note the composer writes that he did not wish his Tenth to close the door on further works in the genre. Here he uses material from Scottish Dances, but, as with the Ninth, they often appear in ghostly form. There is a particularly beautiful second movement that opens with a pensive viola melody, and he does allow himself a farewell in the central Adagio. The five movements conclude with a joyous but distorted hornpipe, and ends in mid air with no double bar line to close the score. I hope Naxos take note that there could be more to come from the septuagenarian. The sound quality, as throughout the cycle, is unfailingly realistic.
Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Naxos Quartets Nos. 9 and 10
The Ninth Naxos Quartet is dedicated to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, mathematician extraordinary, and sometime Lord Mayor of Manchester, both of which attributes have influenced the content of this work. Dame Kathleen dedicated her recent book ‘Constructing pandiagonal magic squares of arbitrarily large size’ to me, so this is some kind of reciprocal present.
There are six movements. The first two form a unit together, but what is now the first movement was originally going to be two separate movements. The resulting compressed ‘allegro’ is thus undermined by intruding slow elements—the effect is a gradual harmonic contamination—lifted from the discarded independent ‘largo’. The distortion is particularly real where intervals between notes are equally divided into unusual fractions - say, a minor third encompasses a scale of more than the common four chromatic notes, inclusive.
These divisions, on a very personal level, refer back to the popular music of the early 1940s, whose contours and rhythms are echoed, as are also the raw sounds of war-time Manchester that I heard as a small boy, and associated with that music—air-raid sirens, the ‘glissandi’ of falling bombs, the tearing apart of crashing buildings—but all re-interpreted, sublimated and disciplined within terms of the string quartet, almost a lifetime after the events, with, I trust, some order lent by the quite exacting and elaborate magic square workings.
I have also referred back to Naxos Quartet No. 3, where I set Michelangelo’s lines, voicelessly, in the cello, beginning ‘Caro me il sonno, e più l’esser di sasso’ (Sleep is dear to me, and being of stone is dearer) concerning his Roman exile from his home state, Florence, and criticizing the ‘injury and shame’ of the government there.
The second movement, like the rejected sketch, is a ‘largo’, and is a slow-motion development of the first part of the first movement, with violent interruptions from the discarded music incorporated and amplified.
The third, fourth and fifth movements are almost an independent miniature quartet within a quartet. I think of them as a short play-within-a-play, remembering Hamlet and the Dream: the grotesquery will be very apparent. They are, respectively, a ‘scherzo’, a ‘lento’ and a ‘military march’.
The sixth movement is very much a Finale, summing up, and clinching the whole harmonic argument.
At the head of the quartet is a line from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom: Omnis in mensura et numero et pondere disposuisti (Thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number and weight).
Naxos Quartet No. 10 is dedicated to the memory of Fausto Moroni.
The big decision, upon facing the last of the quartets for Naxos, was whether this should be a grand finale or not. Although the former course was tempting—to make something even bigger than Quartets Nos. 6, 7 and 9—I eventually decided to write a modest work, based on the Baroque suite, but with Scottish dances, rather than bourées and allemandes.
After finishing the work, I realised that the real reason for this was that I did not wish to draw a thick black line at the conclusion—that in no way must this be a last quartet. I needed to leave the door open: I had enjoyed writing the Naxos Quartets so much, and perhaps even learned a thing or two, that more could, in theory, eventually flourish.
Another temptation was to refer to each of the previous quartets in a solemn farewell sequence, as I had done in the last of the ten Strathclyde Concertos for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: this was firmly resisted. Although the third movement is entitled Passamezzo Farewell, there is no nostalgia—but there are backward-reaching references.
The first movement is a Broken Reel—the outline of the dance form is there, but its rhythms are fractured, with the ghost of a “sonata” shape hovering behind the baroque surface.
The second, very brief movement is a Slow Air and Rant. The Rant is based on a “real” Scottish tune —the irony is blatant.
The Passamezzo Farewell is a more extended movement—a meditation not only on the nature of the Renaissance Passamezzo, but on ultimate mezzi di passare.
The fourth movement is again very brief —a sudden outburst, a summary of implications in the Passamezzo. The tune ‘Deil Stick da Minister’, composed anonymously when the Scottish Protestant Church was trying in vain to ban all dance music—is only quoted at the end.
The finale is a hornpipe, in the more recent, post- Purcellian sense. When it becomes clear how the movement might finish, the resolution is left to the listener’s imagination: the dance is simply stopped, with a suspended gesture. This is not a finale—the hornpipe could lead straight back to the opening of Naxos Quartet No. 1, or into something as yet unwritten. There is no double bar-line.
© 2007 Peter Maxwell Davies
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