Like Leopold Mozart (apropos the last three of Wolfgang's Haydn Quartets), Maxwell Davies describes the Fourth and Fifth quartets of his nearly-completed Naxos cycle as 'relatively slight'. Home in on 'relatively' rather than 'slight'!
With its two movement nocturnal seascape attuned to the pulsations of the lighthouses around Orkney and Shetland, the Quartet No.5 weighs in at half the length of its six movement, late-Beethoven- imbibing sequel. But if one thing is becoming clear as the cycle emerges, Davies is truly the heir to that breed of long-limbed Adagio as located in Beethoven and 'naturalized' by Tippett. Both quartets are at their most persuasive in the lengthy slow movements which anchor their discursive, sometimes playful or tender, surroundings. Is this a creative response to the Maggini's default mode sonority which is a natural and supple warmth? Whatever, there's a humanity (less pronounced in the Strathclyde Concerto series) which is building a compelling cycle. And thanks to Naxos, a doubly 'accessible' cycle at that!
Paul Riley, BBC Music Magazine, 4/1/2006
Peter Maxwell Davies’s string quartet odyssey commissioned by Naxos goes from strength to strength with this resourceful and rewarding pairing. In his succinct notes the composer explains how No 5’s subtitle, Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland, refers ‘not only to the dramatic external sweep of a lighthouse beam across different textures of sea and shore, but to “calls” – each one can be identified by the individual rhythm of its flashes of light’. Cast in two movements and lasting just over 20 minutes, it’s an absorbing, strongly argued and subtly wrought work, its bleached coda taking the listener full circle to the work’s opening bars (an effect Davies likens to ‘the sweeping beam of the North Ronaldsay light dissolving into the first light of dawn – a phenomenon I see, and enjoy, most days’).
Conceived in December 2004 and January 2005, No 6 is an altogether bolder achievement, its six-movement form acknowledging a debt to the late Beethoven quartets. There’s also a seasonal influence in that the second and fifth movements take their cues from Advent and Christmas plainsong. Two pithy scherzos (the first entirely pizzicato) succeed the introductory Allegro, while the fourth movement Adagio not only comprises the work’s emotional kernel but also incorporates some strikingly imaginative recitative writing towards the close. A meaty, compact finale further develops material from the first movement. Inquisitive newcomers who fancy a challenge can rest assured that Davies’s command of the medium is total and that the work as a whole represents a gripping voyage of discovery.
Throw in the prodigious skill and concentration displayed by the Maggini Quartet, as well as some admirable engineering from the Walton/Thomason production-team, and you have a disc which is bound to give many hours of pleasure.
Andrew Achenbach, The Gramophone, 6/1/2006
…both are still substantial, intricately structured works that demonstrate not only the sheer facility of Davies’s invention and his dogged ability to sustain his fascination with the quartet medium, but also how his imagination can be triggered by such different things. Where the six-movement plan on the Sixth owes an obvious and acknowledged debt to Beethoven’s late quartets, the Fifth is subtitled Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland, referring not only to the sweep of lighthouse beams across the northern seascapes, but also to the different patterns of flashes that distinguish one lighthouse from another … the Maggini Quartet are as authoritative as ever in both works.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 4/28/2006
In this third release Maxwell Davies has presented, as usual, two very different scores. On one hand the short, concise, serene, contemplative and atmospheric Quartet No. 5, made up of only two slow movements and subtitled ‘Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland’, the beloved Scottish islands that are so present in many of his compositions…on the other hand No. 6 comprises of no less than six movements, with an extensive Adagio Molto like a central axis and two movements inspired by the flat melodical lines of the song. Dedicated to Alexander Goehr, it is probably up until now the most ambitious work in the series. Highly recommended.
Luis Gago, El Ritmo, 5/1/2006
Faith is a rare commodity in our cynical, materialistic times. Yet, in the field of classical music recording, it is a feature shared by all the enterprising labels committed to capturing the music and performers of our time. Naxos, well known for its exhaustive surveys of obscure music from sometimes exotic concert cultures, has now taken a new and brave step, commissioning 10 Naxos Quartets from the English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
Here is a man who was a firebrand in his time, touring the world (including New Zealand) with his Fires of London ensemble and taking time off to pen a wicked, wacky score for Ken Russell's The Boyfriend. Ever unpredictable, Davies turned symphonist in 1976 and now manages to combine being Master of the Queen's Music with living in rural isolation on the Orkney Islands.
The latest instalment of his Naxos Quartets features No 5 and 6. The Maggini Quartet has never played better, and Andrew Walton's recording is pantheon standard. Try the second movement of No 5, inspired by the beneficent beams of northern Scotland's lighthouses. There's some meltdown dissonance, but this is tempered by warm, Bergian harmonies and a magical fade-out, in which the sweep of a man-made beam succumbs to nature's first light. Davies now finds new rewards in the intellectual and aesthetic discipline of the quartet and has created textbooks of musical influences, without threatening his individuality.
Such influences are sometimes hard to pin down. The second movement of No 6 might be based on plainsong, but audiences must hear Ravelian echoes in its pizzicato scherzo. But we shouldn't be surprised at such catholic taste, when earlier Naxos Quartets have already travelled so widely, from the nods to Beethoven and Haydn in No 1 through to the Bachian intensity of No 3, the composer's fiery reaction to the 2003 Iraq War. Some listeners will find a source of spiritual contemplation in the Naxos Quartets; others the same intellectual stimulation found in the world of words. Davies' ultimate victory is that he has taken chamber music out into the wider world and asserted its relevance.
William Dart, New Zealand Herald, 5/3/2006
These are the fifth and sixth in the projected series of ten quartets Peter Maxwell Davies is writing on commission from Naxos. The composer gives the two-movement Naxos Quartet No 5 the subtitle ‘Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland’. This, as he states in his instructive booklet notes, refers not just to the physical presence of these coastal towers but also to their respective ‘calls’ – each one being readily identifiable by the rhythmic pattern-making of its flashes of light. It’s quite a useful analogy in helping to provide a window onto the opening Largo, which begins with tiny pizzicato and tremolando rhythmic cells before the sighing glissandi of the cello emerge suddenly from the texture, calling out into the firmament. The sonata form that follows this slow introduction takes the listener through the intricate motivic work of the exposition (brought to a spectacular close by precipitous scalic ascents in the two violins), a forcefully concise development and a murmured, shadowy recapitulation. In a brilliant display of compositional frugality, the Lento second movement assumes exactly the same material and form as the first, although heard now in glowing, unbroken counterpoint. In a touching coda, this enigmatic work fades out on an idea heard at its very outset, the composer likening the effect to ‘the sweeping beam of the North Ronaldsay light dissolving into the first light of dawn’.
Dedicated to Alexander Goehr and composed between December 2004 and January 2005, Naxos Quartet No 6 is an entirely different beast. It is a six-movement, 35-minute work – which has the model of Beethoven’s late quartets hovering in the background. The opening Allegro veers unpredictably between the burningly intense and the tenderly reflective. After a brace of scherzos (the first, played pizzicato, based on an Advent plainsong) comes an Adagio contrasting sections of ardent lyricism with a more anguished central section. Towards its close the composer introduces the enormously effective yet eminently simple idea of a recitative for each instrument against sustained accompaniment. Based on a Christmas plainsong (In Die Nativitatis), the Quartet’s fifth movement transforms into a sotto voce carol before a vigorous finale brings this imaginatively wrought and judiciously paced work to a close.
Peter Quinn, International Record Review, 6/1/2006