These string quartets are in my view among the most engaging music in the genre, and I have been drawn back to them repeatedly over the last few years. The music freely moves between more consonant and more dissonant textures, and between tonal and atonal elements. It sounds modern yet not 'avantgarde'. The polyphonic writing is consistently attractive. The music features an impressive timbral palette, supported by a sophisticated harmonic fabric, which is achieved without employment of 'extended' techniques. Transformations within the music are extensive, as often in the composer's works that unfold on the larger structural scale, and lend the musical narrative an open-ended character that is captivating.
The third Naxos quartet is written in four movements, lasting about half an hour. First movement: The principal melodic gesture, introduced in the first violin, is swiftly transformed away from its initial shape. Somehow fragments of the melodic roots always appear recognizable, yet mostly just as subtle hints. Rather than undergoing common 'variations', the melodic gesture resurfaces time and again as a series of fleeting allusions, wandering about in all instruments and registers. The finesse of the compositional proceedings is quite spectacular. Matching the fragmented presentation of melodic gesture is an increasing distortion of the musical flow, which "gradually transforms the material into a military march of a fatuous and splintered nature" (the composer, from the CD booklet); the invasion of Iraq affected the composition of the quartet (March and April 2003). This dissolves into slow, desolate music. Eventually, after an 'outcry', featuring an intense variation of the principal melodic gesture, the movement subsides.
The second movement is slow. After an introductory pizzicato, the cello intonates an abstract melody that beautifully and very slowly rises in register through the viola to the violins. In the process it reveals itself as a freely flowing, even soaring 'endless' melody. After just a brief resting point on sustained chords (at ca. 2 min.) the melodic line develops further, now harmonically and polyphonically enriched by the combined playing of instruments. The 'endless' melody continues in this manner close to the 5 minute mark. In the second half of the movement the melodic expression is more fragmented, yet there are episodes where for a while melodic lines gain new cohesion and direction. Moods are rather dark and subdued. In a more dissonant passage towards the end the rhythmic landscape of the third movement is foreshadowed. The composer's comments in the CD booklet about use and symbolism of plainsong in this movement are revealing.
The third movement "stands in for a scherzo" (the composer). Over variations of a lively rhythmic structure, diverse melodic gestures appear. Simultaneous motion and countermotion contrast one another in ever new forms. The music becomes gradually more urgent in motion and tone. Finally, after a brief moment of quiet suspense, a highly unsettled passage distorts the material, and the movement ends with an episode 'stucchevole' (cloying, nauseating).
The composer: "The Finale, 'Fugue', begins with successive instrumental entries in period style, recalling the typical procedure of the form. This is soon interrupted and replaced by quicker, more dynamic music, suggesting the Italian 'fuga' (flight) rather than the form Bach perfected."
The 'flight' episodes are full of violent friction. They feature not just fierce forward motion, but also rough counter motions that seek to hold back the fleeing subject. There is a tentative return of the more quiet fugue, but the 'flight' section again pushes through. The music ends with a soaring fugue episode that is repeatedly and violently interjected with a stopping device from the 'flight' sections, two strong strokes of short notes that quickly follow each other. Finally the stopping device runs rampant, repeating itself on its own a few times, and the music ends on a grinding held chord.
The fourth Naxos quartet, a distinct favorite of mine, is written as a single movement, lasting about 25 minutes. It was inspired by the Brueghel picture of children's games (1560), which can easily be found on the web.
The composer: "These illustrations liberated my musical imagination, but I feel it would limit the listener's perception to be too specific about which game relates to exactly which section of the work. Suffice it to say that there is vigorous play - leap frog, bind the devil with a cord, truss, wrestling - alongside quieter pastimes - masks, guess whom I shall choose, courting, odds and evens. The single movement juxtaposes these activities as abruptly and intimately as they occur in Brueghel. [...] As work on the quartet progressed I became aware that I was reading into, and behind the games, adult motives and implications, concerning aggression and war, with their consequences. It was impossible to escape into innocent childhood fantasy."
The abrupt juxtaposition of activities translates into numerous sections of different musical motion that follow one another in discrete blocks. Within the more agitated or faster sections, the drivers of activity are sequences of concatenated, varied repeats of short motifs that are rhythmically accentuated. The four instrumental strands often move at different speeds or are rhythmically shifted against one another. The resulting polyphony is complex yet amazingly transparent at the same time - a feature that contributes to an enduring fascination of the music.
In slow passages the music is laden with suspense, yet it is often serene nonetheless, and at times mysterious. The harmonic and timbral development in several of these sections is expansive and impressive in its directionality.
The music, recorded on a Naxos CD, is played with intensity and commitment by the Maggini Quartet; the sound is palpable and detailed.
PS: Some reviewers have commented that Maxwell Davies' quartets draw on the sound world of Bartok and others. I myself have thought that some passages in the first few quartets sound similar to Bartok, and several movements in the 7th quartet similar to Shostakovich. Yet I found that this is not the case, after actually re-listening to all of Bartok's quartets 2 - 6, and to several Shostakovich quartets. Maxwell Davies' quartets sound quite different; the composer has very much his own voice.