Maxwell Davies
Naxos Quartets Nos. 7 and 8

Naxos Quartet # 7 (2005), a large work of almost an hour duration, was inspired by the work of the Italian architect Borromini. Maxwell Davies describes in the CD booklet how as a student in the 1950s in Rome he "began to appreciate the extraordinarily original manipulation of space and light in Borromini’s work." He continues: "More than in any other seventeenth-century building, a small space would appear huge, due to exaggerated angles and recesses, and to the pulsating rhythms of decoration." The composer then describes in detail the particular architectural inspirations for each of the seven movements, which makes for the most interesting read after the listener is already familiar with the music.

Almost all of the music is slow, and a lot of the time it is rather introspective. Its complex proceedings demand immense concentration on the part of the listener, yet the rewards stand in generous proportion to this effort. The stretching of space in Borromini’s architecture is mirrored with pronounced arches of musical structure and tension, both on the larger and the smaller scale. On a number of occasions a sense of stretching is also conveyed by violin playing in the upper or even uppermost registers, and a good amount of filigree is found in the music. Several times the music is imbued with great urge. Some unique structures are created.

Right at the beginning of the first movement the music draws the listener in with caressing, seductive melodic polyphony. After some time a series of long waves of intensification begins, leading to great stretching and tension within the musical fabric of the 10-minute movement. Nonetheless in the first few minutes the dynamic level rarely exceeds mezzoforte; only after the 6 minute mark the music develops in a dynamically much more expansive manner, leading to dramatic surges. Finally, over its last minute, the music subsides in a quiet fashion. The stylistic timelessness of the music, which is also found elsewhere in the quartet but is especially striking here, is a remarkable achievement.

The second movement first introduces a very slow music in which mysterious harmonies unfold. A melodic polyphony ensues in which two main voices are divided over muted violin in high register and cello. The contrast between melodies and register results in a vulnerable, arresting tension. After a while the voices switch register. Later on dynamic surges driven or accompanied by tremoli are heard, flooding the music with luminosity as they move to higher registers; such ‘tremolo surges’ will resurface in later movements as well, beginning with the next one. The music then continues with melodic polyphony.

The third movement begins with a brief introductory section, after which a sequence of transformations of an extended melodic phrase is heard, leading further and further away from the original melodic statement. Dynamic surges accompany each of the appearances of the phrase, and they often end in intense ‘tremolo surges’. In this manner wave after wave follows one another as in the first movement, but now in considerably shorter intervals and often with much steeper inclines towards the end. After the music has quieted down a bit towards the middle, while still harboring a brewing underlying tension, it erupts into its fiercest yet also mightiest surge, developing in a prolonged way over 2 minutes time, through several successive stages. It builds a huge large-scale arch in the music.

A quirky dance-like melody is heard in the fourth movement, starting out as a duet between higher and lower registers. The long-stretched, intricate unfolding and treatment of the melody is admirable.

The fifth movement begins with the surge of a soaring melody from the cello below to the highest registers of the violin, an intricate and impressive large-scale process that spans more than a minute. The composer explains that the movement was inspired by a spiral tower of one of Borromini’s buildings, which is well audible. Variations of the melody ensue that keep on traversing diverse registers. In the middle of the movement, at around 3.5 min., another long-stretched surge from below occurs. Yet it is different from the one that started out the movement and it ends up building an even more extended arch in the music. After reaching the low registers once more, several dramatic surges of intensity ensue. Following the last one, built on another drive of the music from low to high registers, and ending on a set of powerful, glowing tremoli, the music subsides.

A long, searching pizzicato passage full of harmonic and rhythmic friction opens the sixth movement. It is followed by playing on high register of a soaring, slowly unfolding melodic pattern, which develops by melodic elements floating and alternating between instruments, while sound planes of close harmonic and polyphonic interplay are created. Slowly the average pitch descends. In the middle a new melodic phrase is introduced that is spun forth into longer strings by linkage of variations, and it wanders through the diverse instruments.

The introduction of the main motivic material at the beginning of the 7th and final movement is embedded in tremoli played at high volume. The violent intensity of the music is later, at around 1’20", accentuated by whirlwind concatenations of arpeggio-like figures. Around 2.5 min. an imitation of the previous phrases very softly, as a distant echo, initially seems just a short intermezzo, yet after another short outburst that quickly subsides again, it turns out to have laid the groundwork for an extended, quiet and songful adagio ending of the music. This intriguing detail fits well with the originality of the movement’s overall structure.

Once the fascination of this string quartet has the listener in its grip, which may very well be at first listening, the listener may find him/herself drawn towards this work time and time again. It is sublime musical architecture.

Naxos Quartet # 8 (2005) is based on ‘Queen Elisabeth’s Galliard’ by Renaissance composer Dowland and is, with a duration of 18 minutes, relatively short. Maxwell Davies: "The Dowland is present in some form throughout, but only emerges plain and unadorned towards the work’s single movement’s close, appearing there in a bright F sharp major, with the melody initially in the cello." (It is worthwhile reading the remainder of the comments on the structure by the composer in the CD booklet.) The viola opens the work with the slow presentation of an ascending three-note motif, taken from the original melody by Dowland, and from there the texture beautifully soars into the high registers. The passage sets the stage for much of the music, where long, tension-filled lines are created out of minimal or very slowly developing motivic material. This is made possible by, among others, superb steering of harmony and colorful use of register range available across the four instruments.

After three minutes the music enters a faster tempo, commencing a section of more than three minutes duration where the Dowland melody with its dance-like character is represented in an abstract manner. Also here long lines are woven, in which ever different strands in the polyphony rise to the forefront. Eventually, in a short passage, the texture recedes to soft dynamics, which allows slow music to take over once more. For a brief episode the faster dance-like music returns, at first tentatively, then more firmly, only to subside again. The melodic and harmonic proceedings in the subsequent extended adagio section are sublime.

Around 12.5 minutes a repeated broad four-note motif, played forte by the viola and doubled by the cello on every other note, dramatically introduces the final stage of the music, which over several phases finally leads to the introduction of the original melody by Dowland. The presentation of the melody is a distinctive moment, but also a fleeting one. The music ends on a mysterious, pensive note.

The playing of the Maggini Quartet combines effortless technical finesse with immense sensitivity for the music’s drama and inner tension – the admirable performances on this disc appear to be exemplary.

© Albrecht Moritz 2011