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CD Feature/ Peter Maxwell Davies: "Naxos Quartets Nos. 7 and 8"

img  Tobias

One can’t help but feel that working on the Naxos Quartets is much more than just another commission for Peter Maxwell-Davies. It is a project which puts him in direct contact with his musical oeuvre and his personal past. Without a single doubt, the strict outward limitation of two quartets per disc has sparked a vitalising richness in form and expression and already achieved something that seemed out of reach just a short while ago: To turn the string quartet as such into an object of discussion again, after it seemed to have reached its limits and appeared to be worn out. This process of renewal has reached a temporary peak with Davies’ seventh installment, a tribute to 17th century Italo-Swiss architect Borromini. Here, the string quartet replenishes itself as a fertile ground for turning abstract ideas into tangible perceptions, as a playground for various technques – as well as a place where tradition and the present, acknowledged consensus and individuality can meet.

Aspects of Architecture
To Davies, this systematic examination of his relationship with the past began at the end of the 1960s, with an article about architecture. This can hardly be a surprise to anyone who has followed both the Naxos Quartets and his life in general – already the fourth part of the series was a tribute to his friend Giuseppe Rebecchini, a Roman architect and aspects of not directly musical principles have entered his work before. What makes this interesting is that Davies openly admits that, strictly speaking, directly transfering these principles to a score is nothing but a simple trick and does the visual experience no justice – looking at the S. Ivo tower spiral, as he correctly points out, is something alltogether different than listening to a “spiral course through any written matrix of notes”. For things to work, the composer needs to take a step back and investigate the fundamentals of the object, their effect on the eye and their impact on a more general level. To Davies, the basics of Borromini’s work are threefold: Contraction (suggesting hugeness in the smallest of spaces), interpenetration (of different eras) and flexible distortions. The latter directly relates to the Borromini’s energetic lines, to his capacity of making the immobile move and the static dance. By subjecting his own writing to these three criteria, the composer arrives at a music which is able to emulate the impact of architecture and which opens up new possibilities within his own style.

A visit to Borromini’s churches
Before the composing process could actually begin, however, Peter Maxwell Davies visited Rebecchini again and took a fresh look at the objects he was going to portrait. His friend not only showed him around the churches responsible for Borromini’s fame, but also arranged inspections of smaller buildings, which might have escaped immediate notice. Each movement of the seventh quartet subsequently corresponds with one of these buildings, except for his acknowledged masterpiece, S. Carlino, a relatively small church, which the architect turned into an irresistible powerhouse of shapes and figures and which is covered both by the opening and closing movement. This makes sense, too, in biographical terms, as it was Borromini’s first solo commission and also because he would get back to it at the end of his life, with it being finished five years after his surreal suicide-induced death (which he would minutely dictate in the hours which followed upon throwing himself into a sword). With the seventh and final movement, Davies takes the work as a whole into metaphorical realms with allusions to the his tributee’s mentally confused last years as a deeply disappointed and envious old man. One can therefore see this as a musical journey through Borromini’s creations – or consider them as stone-made allegories for his life.

Ballet shoe fantasies

At first sight, the result of this endeavour is awe-inspiring and almost daunting. Roughly fifty five minutes long, the quartet is a thickly flowing stream in slow-motion. The time signatures are merely a first indication of what is to come: Adagio molto – Adagio – Lento Molto – Adagio – Lento – Adagio – Adagio. Even though this radicality puts him in a direct line with Dowland, Haydn and Shostakovich, it is neither an aim in itself, nor a nod to these much respected colleagues. Rather, to make the spatial aspect of his work clear, Davies needs to constrict time and form. He refuses to be boiled down to the easy notion of answering the energy of Borromini’s pieces with pace and serration. Different matrices are the basis for almost all of the movements, spiralling the notes to different coordinates of a compostional map of principles. Davies aims at a tonal experience which will give the inner eye the chance to perceive the sensations of the ear as a visual stimulus. He simulates rhythmical allignments through sequences of determinant and irrational passages, he contrasts a climax with a moment of near-silence to create a suspended impression of space and time, he allows fantasies evoked by the sight of Ballet shoes in the tiny church of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini to dictate his interpretations and to indulge in a modified version of 17th century counterpoint where he perceives a meeting of different traditions. The seventh string quartet is a work which confounds because of its constant charges between opposing emotions and between standstill and change. At times, it creates the illusion of a neverending canon, with the different voices picking up semitone motives and handing them down through the scale and of two or three motives being carried from the first to the last note. And then again, it amazes with its eclecticism of styles, ideas and methods.

One is easily tempted to call such a piece “monolithic”, if it weren’t for the fact that this term (maybe because of Kubrick’s “2001”) mainly implies something dark, dangerous and without surface ripples. The opposite is true, however, and a large chunk of that can be attributed to the performance of the Maggini Quartet, whom the composer has elected as his partner in the ongoing Naxos Quartets project. Their playing is fully immersed in the structural principles talked about above, but they fill this music with a carefully measured amount of a quality which Davies hints at in the last chapter, but which has often been overlooked in Borromini’s life filled with many triumphs and an overflowing self-assuredness: Frailty, uncertainty and doubt – in short: Humanity. The fact that even the sombre palette of the eight quartet appears as a shining daydream after this bipolar interpretation speaks books in that respect. With the ninth quartet now being announced as a “radically demanding structural experiment”, one can’t help but feel the Naxos Quartets are not only more than just another commission for Peter Maxwell Davies – but for his audience as well.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Naxos Records

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