- Naxos Quartet No. 8 for string quartet, J. 452
- Naxos Quartet No. 7 for string quartet, J. 447
By commissioning 10 string quartets to be released on five discs, record label Naxos gave Peter Maxwell Davies a remarkably broad canvass on which to experiment and play. The freedom that such a project offered allowed the composer to stretch beyond the standard conventions of the string quartet literature and make forays into uncharted, if not eccentric, territory (not that this composer had previously shown any reticence toward eccentricity). The "Seventh" is a perfect model of his departure from previous models -- it lasts nearly an hour and consists of seven slow movements. Davies based each movement on an aspect of the work of Francesco Borromini, the seventeenth century Roman architect. In the program booklet, he painstakingly relates the details of the architecture as they relate to each movement, and while the correlations may be difficult for the listener to discern, that's rendered irrelevant because the resulting quartet is fully successful as a piece of music apart from any programmatic associations. The movements may lack the contrasting tempos characteristic of a piece of this length, but Davies finds numerous other parameters to exploit, so the fact that there is no consistently fast music is not an issue. Davies is a master of coloristic diversity and the creation of drama by purely musical means, and those gifts explain how he can pull off a piece like this. The movements are varied, and each creates a distinctive sound world with its own sense of unfolding development. The 20-minute "Quartet No. 8" is written in a single movement that is largely slow, although its tone is considerably lighter and more optimistic than that of the "Seventh." The "Eighth" was written in honor of the Queen's 80th birthday and is based on Dowland's tribute to the first Elizabeth, "Queen Elizabeth's Galliard." When the Galliard appears in its original form toward the end of the quartet, surrounded by Davies' delicate traceries, it sounds like the sun breaking through clouds. The Maggini Quartet plays with a great variety of tonal color and handles this technically demanding music with absolute security. Naxos' sound is characteristically clean and crisp.