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Peter Maxwell Davies

Publisher: Chester Music

Naxos Quartet No. 2 (2003)
Commissioned by the Naxos Recording Company
Chester Music Ltd
Works for 2-6 Players
Year Composed
41 Minutes

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Programme Note
Peter Maxwell Davies Naxos Quartet No. 2 (2003)
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Peter Maxwell Davies

Naxos Quartet No. 2

The second of the series of ten quartets commissioned by Naxos was finished in January 2003. It has four movements: the second and third are closely related, and separated by only a very brief pause, and the first is the most substantial.

A slow, hushed introduction defines the outlines of harmonic and rhythmic spaces which the first movement – and indeed the whole work – will fill out. One hears the shapes at a distance, as if enshrouded in fog. The ensuing Allegro proper appears to have a classical form; an exposition, with two subject groups, is followed by a development section. What seems to be the initiation of a second exposition is a trap, merely triggering the next developmental procedures. This whole section suggests to me a maze of mirrors, some distorting. Where the recapitulation is expected, I have placed the mere ghost of a scherzo, all in pianissimo, which bridges into a coda.

The second movement has two parts – a recitative, full of drama and contrast, and a short, expressive arioso. A scherzo proper follows directly: I thought of this as an Intermezzo, offering some gentle relief.

The fourth is a slow movement, which builds gradually – and I would like to think, inevitably – to the harmonic core and crystallisation of the processes set in motion.

This quartet is dedicated to the composer Ian Kellam. He was my first musical friend, when we both played our compositions on BBC Children’s Hour, more than fifty years ago.

© Peter Maxwell Davies 2003

Sample Pages

The music's tense contrasts, the agitation and heartfelt turn of expression, managed to shut out the rest of the world. Naxos Quartet No. 2 makes and leaves a big impression.
Colin Anderson,,12/10/2009
[Maxwell Davies] makes the process of four voices developing and resolving an argument appear astonishingly productive, without ducking the complexities that a 21st-century composer must confront in such a well-established form.
Andrew Clark, The Financial Times,12/10/2009
Next morning — a July idyll — at Pittville Pump Room, there was an enjoyable recital by the Maggini Quartet. Brilliantly poised accounts of Haydn’s Op 33, No 6, and Mozart’s K458 quartets (the latter composed in response to the former) framed the world premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Naxos Quartet No 2. This is part of a series of 10 quartets commissioned for the Magginis by the Naxos record label. Davies sees them as chapters in a novel. The third (due at Wigmore Hall in October) is already written: it apparently picks up where No 1 ended, or, rather, went “into the stratosphere”, and will bring the wispy musical line back to earth. Meanwhile, No 2 is a chapter with its own concerns. Taking 41 minutes, and cast in four movements whose compound nature seems to make a total of more, this quartet is a hugely ambitious, demanding essay, reminiscent in its stringency both of the middle Bartok quartets and the later Shostakovich ones. As with Bartok, there is much fierce double-stopping and rhythmic iteration. As with Shostakovich, an emphasis on painfully slow tempi: two movements are lentos, and the allegro first movement has a lento introduction. But Davies has his own voice, and this is one of his typical incipits presenting the material of a work in kernel form. The allegro is a strenuous, original sonata, culminating in a prestissimo sub-movement. (I wish the Magginis had driven this allegro harder, but it is my only criticism of a breathtaking premiere.) The first lento movement, influenced, Davies told us, by his experience of conducting Mozart’s Figaro, is a vehement group recitative that finds release not so much in an aria as in a chorale. The third movement is an intermezzo in which animated, contrapuntal “burlesques” alternate with pause-like, reflective sections, and these point us towards the lento finale. This, the core of the work, is one of Davies’s barest, most emotional utterances. A mournful, quasi-Scottish theme develops measuredly, but with increasing elaboration, until it mutates into a “new” viola tune that sounds strangely familiar. There is a moving sense of arrival, but the journey is not yet over. The music floats off into a place where, as Davies suggested, “you didn’t know there was any existence at all”. At the end, the players unite on a top F that just gets louder and louder.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,20/07/2003
Classical models certainly lie behind Davies's approach to the form, but more as distant, much-admired archetypes than in any slavish neoclassical sense. He has acknowledged a debt to Bach's Two- and Three-Part Inventions as well. And there are passages in Naxos No 2 that echo Berg, although Davies's lyricism is leaner and more wiry, his harmonic language far less opulent. The first of the four movements is a sonata form of sorts, but one in which the elements are reassessed, and whose material is in a constant state of development. Where a recapitulation would be expected, for instance, Davies substitutes a spectral Scherzo, a brief burst of fast music in a work in which so much is slow and measured. Not that any of it ever feels too slow: the long-range control of harmony and the evolutionary processes that underpin it are too satisfying for that. The second movement is a highly wrought recitative followed by a chorale-like aria, while the third, the most episodic and the hardest to pin down, is a compressed sequence of burlesques. Then the weight of the finale balances that of the first movement, gradually pulling the thematic threads together, and allowing the music the resolution that in retrospect it has been searching for from the very first bars, until everything evaporates in a shiver of tremolandos and the eerie ghost of a chorale. It is an utterly conclusive, utterly absorbing musical argument.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,14/07/2003
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