With the premiere on Tuesday of his 10th and final Naxos String Quartet, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies came to the end of what must surely rank as one of the most impressive musical statements of our time. From the intimate exchanges of four string players Max has drawn a language that contradicts the prevailing notion of music as a medium that needs size and/or volume to make an impact. He has gone back to the classic models, Haydn and Beethoven, and somehow found within himself a creative wellspring that can withstand comparison with theirs. No mean achievement.
For those of us who have followed this journey, it has been an immensely rewarding experience. Naxos is to be congratulated for its enterprise – the CDs of each successive quartet-pairing have followed soon after the premiere – and the Maggini Quartet deserves equal recognition for learning so much new and often complex music.
The finale, nevertheless, was an anti-climax, with Max himself apparently at a loss to know how to round off the series. His conclusion – to draw a temporary line, with the intention of returning to a medium that has stimulated so many creative juices – seems appropriate, but the 10th Naxos Quartet finds him hovering uneasily, as if his mind is already impatient to move on.
The first movement, “Broken Reel”, is made up of terse, unyielding shards and splinters, expressed in emphatic gestures that make difficult listening: this is Max in unreformed mode. With two consecutive slow movements – the one a melancholy mood-picture ending with a distorted jig à la Shostakovich, the other a wonderfully sustained meditation that acts as the work’s emotional and musical heart – Max returns to the idiom of Beethovenian introspection that, throughout this quartet cycle, has inspired him to his most disciplined writing. The fourth movement is an angst-ridden scherzo, the finale a rag-bag ending in mid-sentence – the implication being that Max, like Baba the Turk, will not be silenced.
The Magginis made better sense of it than they did of Haydn’s quartet Op 20 No 5 and Beethoven’s third Razumovsky quartet, both spoilt by the scrappy playing of the Magginis’ new leader, Lorraine McAslan.