International Record Review

Having announced that his next compositional phase is to be based around chamber music, and with the recent premieres of his Piano Trio and First ‘Naxos’ Quartet, now is a good time to take stock of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s earlier chamber output. This new disc, a chronological succession of pieces from 1952 to 1980, enables the listener to do so.

The Quartet Movement (1952) vivaciously fuses Classical development and pre-Classical repetition in an idiom evoking Bartók and Stravinsky, which models resurface a quarter century on in the Little Quartets . Written in 1977 and 1980, though the First was ‘lost in the post’ and recomposed in 1987 as the Second, they almost constitute an integral quartet: the three-movement No. 1 – plaintive Andante , folksy Allegro and elegiac Lento – complemented by the through-composed No. 2, its wistful Adagio returning to round off a deftly scored Allegro moderato .

Completed in 1956, the Five Piano Pieces – Maxwell Davies’s second and last work with opus number – combine aspects of his nascent maturity with facets of Viennese serialism refracted through Darmstadt practice. The lengthy third piece sounds disconcertingly like serial ‘swing’, while the final pieces draws together elements of its predecessors to thoughtful, if inconclusive, effect. Ian Pace renders them less forcefully but surely more accurately than John Odgon on a long-deleted EMI recording, and ably partners Guy Cowley in the long-mislaid Clarinet Sonata . Dating from a year later, this broadens but does not necessarily refine the stylistic range – though the Bergian intensity of the final Adagio more than anticipates the Expressionism of the Taverner years. Theatrical elements were seldom absent from Maxwell Davies’s instrumental works over the decade from the mid-1960s. Hymnos (1967) is a stark abstract drama between clarinet and piano, with The Seven Brightnesses (1975) a symmetrically arranged monologue for clarinet alone. Cowley plays superbly in both, though it would be good to see Alan Hacker’s pioneering versions (on L’Oiseau-Lyre and Nato) returned to the catalogue.

However, the most pressing reason for acquiring the disc is the 1961 String Quartet – a masterpiece of controlled, fluid momentum here receiving its first recording. Like other works from this period (notably Leopardi Fragments and O Magnum Mysterium), the presence of Monteverdi’s Vespers is felt in the way a ‘cantus’ line threads its way through highly differentiated textures – providing a flexible framework for the melismatic detail which gives the music its expressive intensity. The Kreutzer Quartet’s often almost vibrato-less playing strikes a note of somewhat post-a priori authenticity, but their keenness of response here and in the other quartet works is something the Margin Quartet will be hard pressed to match – should they record them as part of their Naxos cycle.

Recorded with an ideal combination of spaciousness and clarity, and with a booklet note combining overview and observations from the players, this is a timely disc – and not just on account of Maxwell Davies’s somewhat depleted representation in the current catalogue.

—Graham Simpson