Thursday 2 February 2012

Peter Maxwell Davies Naxos Quartets

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is, arguably, our greatest living composer. So why then are there so many gaping holes in the recorded repertoire of this composer? Much of the blame is down to the demise of Collins Classics that recorded Max’s first six symphonies, all ten of the Strathclyde Concertos as well as many other of his works.

Some of the Collins Classics recordings have been licensed by Regis Records and I have heard that a label called Retrospective, obtainable through Harmonia Mundi, are to issue old Collins Classics back catalogue. I spoke to HM recently and, whilst not committing themselves, they say that they are aware of Sir Peter being ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Collins Classics catalogue. However, nothing has been released so far.

In the meantime collectors of Max’s music will have to go to Amazon to find second-hand copies, though this can often be expensive.

Peter Maxwell Davis’ Symphony No.9 is due to be premiered in Liverpool on 9th of June 2012 but why hasn’t a record company recorded Symphonies 7 and 8?

Maxwell Davis is perhaps best known from his entertaining and approachable Orkney Wedding and Sunrise but perhaps many people are daunted by his other works. If so, don’t start with such pieces as Eight Songs for a Mad King. This may be great theatre but not a great place to start. Instead I suggest you try such works as the First Violin Concerto played by Isaac Stern, who premiered the work at the 1986 St Magnus Festival, on Sony Classical Modelled on the Mendelssohn concerto, Maxwell Davies’ favourite, this is a melodic work and a great place to start.

If you can get a copy, then the Fourth Strathclyde Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra is another wonderful work ending with a memorable Scottish theme. Recorded on Collins Classics, second-hand copies are often available through Amazon

The record company that has done the most for Maxwell Davis in recent times is Naxos who in 2001 commissioned ten quartets from the composer, subsequently to be called the Naxos Quartets. This must be the first time a record company has acted as a sponsor of a composition. All have a consistent quality and were written between 2002 and 2007. All ten have been recorded on Naxos by the Maggini Quartet.

I have recently listened again to Naxos Quartet No.7. This 53 minute work is worthy of Beethoven. Yes, I put it that strongly. Many of Max’s more recent works make use of mathematical proportions. In the Seventh Naxos Quartet, the composer draws musical parallels with, the baroque architect, Borromini and the style and proportions of seven of his Roman buildings, creating a work of immense power and cohesion.    

Max himself says that it doesn’t matter in the slightest that the listener knows nothing of this – it’s the music that counts. However, as the quartet progresses through its seven movements, it is surely exactly those devices that give structure and such power to the music.

The first movement adagio molto is inspired by the church of S Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and uses the plainsong quae est ista, quae ascendit sicut aurora consurgens to help give the illusion of the large space, full of light. Growing slowly from a sombre opening the movement builds to a climax bursting with shafts light before the music falls back and recedes to the distance.

The second movement, adagio, concerns the church of S. Giovanni dei Fiorento with the delicacy of the opening conjuring up vivid images of a tiny space before a plaintive little tune appears. Part way through, the movement becomes more dramatic with tremolo strings adding sparkle to the music.

The third movement, lento molto, brings more warmth, building from simplicity to a richer fuller sound representing the Roman Baroque of the church of S. Giovanni in Laterano. The fourth movement, Adagio, brings dance like rhythms and circling motifs inspired by Borromini’s Oratorio dei Filippini with its emphasis on triangles and circles.

The fifth movement, lento, was inspired by the Spiral tower of S. Ivo alla Sapienza, with a richly spun plainsong ending with a short climax. The sixth movement, an adagio: scorsa secular, begins with an extended pizzicato passage before introducing a melody that at first seems to tug against two tonal centres before settling and ending quietly.

The seventh and final movement, adagio: postlude, inspired by the church of S. Carlino, starts violently with dramatic slides on the strings before calming to a single violin melody. Eventually all the players join before the quiet, resigned ending.

Don’t worry too much about the underlying inspiration for this magnificent quartet. The music can stand alone as a fascinating and powerful work. I will be returning to this particular quartet again and again.

Also on this disc is the Eighth Naxos Quartet which, at just under 19 minutes, is a light and airy one movement work based on a galliard by John Dowland. Whilst there are moments of drama and mystery in this quartet it is, overall, a bright and airy piece. Dowland’s Queen Elizabeth galliard haunts the whole work but only appears completely towards the end before a quiet close. The work was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II on her eightieth birthday.

The Maggini Quartet play brilliantly and are extremely well recorded.

In the meantime let’s hope the record companies take note and give Sir Peter the recognition he is due by recording and reissuing more of his powerful music. If you want to find out more about this composer, then visit his website .

If you’re still not convinced and would like to get back to more standard repertoire then fear not – my next blog will be on Haydn quartets. Not quite the leap you might think because, of his First Naxos quartet, Peter Maxwell Davis himself says, ‘Haydn looms large’.

1 comment:

  1. Have just bought these and about to launch into new territory. Well done Naxos -whether I enjoy them or not.