MAXWELL DAVIES: Naxos Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

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Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)

Naxos Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Although filtering the extraordinary light, weather andseascape of Orkney through the comparativelyrestricted medium of the string quartet was of hugeinterest, it was architectural challenges whichpreoccupied me in the composition of the first NaxosQuartet, in three movements. I am very aware that thisis the first in a sequence of ten quartets, which enabledme to think from the outset of an architecture spanningthe whole cycle. I feel like a novelist who issues a bookchapter by chapter at regular intervals in the pages of aperiodical. This feeling is not entirely new. When Ireached Symphony No. 4, in 1989, I realised that I wasmidway in a sequence of seven symphonies, and couldhenceforth design the architecture of the remainingthree with unusually strong interconnections andthrough-planning, eventually making the end of No. 7loop back into the opening of No. 1.

The first slow bars of the Quartet recall the mood ofthe start of Beethoven's F sharp major piano sonata, inthat they provide a nostalgic glimpse into a \safe" worldof the past. The precise point of that world is the middle,slow section of my third Strathclyde Concerto, also of1989. This material was subjected to a process oftransformation through a twelve-unit "most perfectpandiagonal magic square". Perhaps this sounds moredaunting than it is - it works as a catalyst to musicalinvention, engendering enough related but varied basicrhythmic and melodic outline for the whole series, withdue harmonic accountability. The methods ofapplication, the degrees of rigour for sections withdifferent architectural functions within the grand design,would be the proper material for a composition seminar,hardly for a programme note. Suffice to say that thediscipline involved in the increasing awareness ofconstituent symmetries, with audible choices to be madeat each juncture in each parameter, liberated fantasy andfreedom of composition. This square is one I haveexploited over many years, and although its workingshave become very familiar indeed, I am still astonishedat new evolutions. It is like an ever-fruitful vine,copiously bearing new grapes.

The exposition of this first movement is based onclassical models: Haydn looms large, with the energeticfirst subject, and a more contemplative second subjectgroup. A ghost of the four opening slow measures leadsto a "repeat" of this exposition - the harmonic regionstraversed are the same, the thematic material is at leastsimilar, and although the individual bar and phraselengths are often dissimilar, the two expositions in totoare isometric. It amounts to an alternative exposition.

These two expositions will be quoted as necessary anddeveloped in later quartets.

A variation of the opening slow figure leads to ashort section of three ascending phrases, with the firstviolin having the main part, summarising the contents ofthe double exposition, and it is upon this short sectionthat the ensuing development is based. This has threeparts, first a "classical" section, with modulation,various types of counterpoint, the breaking down andrebuilding of material, in a reworking of Germanicdevelopmental style. The second part employs purethematic transformation, the third is continuousvariations-in-reverse, that is the gradual stripping downof by now quite complex material, rather than the usualprocess, in "variations", of adding to a simple outline anever-increasing decorative overlay. This is the mostdramatic section of the movement. At the close, thematerial has distilled to the near vanishing; there couldnot 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 reminiscentof Jacobean dance music, as if a chest of viols weresubtly present. Once the other three instruments haveestablished the framework, the first violin makes adelayed entry, suggesting a "slow air", such as onemight hear in a contemplative moment in an Orkneyfolk fiddle gathering. This is contrasted absolutely by asection taking to even further extremes the contrasts ofthe last part of the first movement. There are violentcontracts of pace, texture and material very closetogether. I think of it as a dramatic recitative, where theparticipants are nowhere close to mutual understanding.

The calm passacaglia returns, in varied guise, but thethematic shapes begin to assume characteristics of thoseof the previous recitative.

As the second movement progresses, the two moodsand the two kinds of material coalesce gradually, so thatby the final unisons, the participants have come to anunderstanding, and the originally contrasting sectionshave assumed one identity.

The physical sound of the third movement wassuggested by a strong breeze through dry heather, aswell as referring obliquely to a well-known Chopinpiano sonata finale. It is "too short"... it evaporates atthe end, disappearing beyond the upper limits of theaudible register of the instruments, before very muchhas happened to the material at all. It is a scherzo, veryfast and quiet with its thematic discourse continuing thatof the middle movement. I felt it was enough, in theseparticular circumstances, after the concentrated natureof the previous movements. This scherzo will bebrought back from the stratosphere (where I imagine itto continue, inaudibly) and its conversation, startedhere, taken up again, in the Third Quartet.

This quartet is dedicated to my Manager of 27years, Judy Arnold.

The second of the series of ten quartetscommissioned by Naxos records was finished inJanuary, 2003. It has four movements: the second andthird are closely related, and separated by only a verybrief pause, and the first is the most substantial.

A slow, hushed introduction defines the outlines ofharmonic and rhythmic spaces which the firstmovement, and indeed the whole work, will fill out.

One hears the shapes at a distance, as if enshrouded infog. The Allegro proper has a firm initial nine-barsentence, where Scottish dance rhythms prevail,followed by what I think of as its shadow, a pianissimoecho, where the phrases within the sentence are nowdivided by short insertions, foreshadowing secondsubject harmonies. A D minor cadence signposts clearlythe termination of the first subject. The second subjectgroup has four sections of contrasting natures, of whichthe last, in a defining sequence of chords, clinches thetonal space - the ultimate C minor chord functionsclearly, I hope, as an F minor dominant, within thediscipline of a most perfect pandiagonal magic square.

A Germanic, in the classical sense, developmentfollows; do not be deceived by the premature return toD minor, and what seems to be the initiation of a secondexposition with inverted material - this is a trap, merelytriggering the next developmental procedures. Thiswhole section suggests to me a maze of mirrors, somedistorting. Where the recapitulation is expected, I haveplaced the mere ghost of a scherzo, all in pianissimo,which bridges into and prepares the harmonic groundfor a coda. This coda refers back to the end of theexposition, but dwells on the augmented fourth awayfrom the D tonic, as outlined in the first bars of theintroduction, and of the Allegro. The joined up melodicline suggests that the whole movement has ultimatelybeen monothematic, all along.

The second movement has two parts, a recitative,full of drama and contrast, and a short, expressivearioso. A scherzo proper follows directly: I thought ofthis as an Intermezzo, offering some gentle relief. Itends with a brief reference to the opening of the secondmovement, underlining the unity in diversity of the pair.

The fourth is a slow movement, and buil
Item number 8557396
Barcode 747313239627
Release date 09/01/2004
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Davies, Peter Maxwell
Davies, Peter Maxwell
Orchestras Maggini Quartet
Maggini Quartet
Producers Walton, Andrew
Walton, Andrew
Disc: 1
Naxos Quartet No. 2
1 I. Adagio - Allegro
2 II. Largo
3 III. Allegro molto
4 I. Lento - Allegro
5 II. Lento flessibile
6 III. Allegro
7 IV. Lento flessibile
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