His job title may sound quaint, but in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies we have a better Master of the Queen's Music than we deserve. While we acquiesce as a succession of governments hack at the roots of music education, he doggedly goes on making it happen, in Orkney and the wider world.
While young composers trumpet their perishable wares, this youthful septuagenarian quietly produces a stream of vintage works. He may have his duff shots, but his sequence of quartets bearing the name of the record company that commissioned them is now a row of beacons on the musical horizon.
Premiered at the Wigmore Hall, the 10th Naxos Quartet emerges as a poised and majestic work. Maxwell Davies has drawn on Scottish dances for it, but, as with other works in this sequence, the voice in the background is Bartok's: time and again, it's more like Hungary than north of the Border.
The first movement begins with abrupt swoops and sharply stifled emphases, moving to a dance refracted in an angular way. There are on-the-bridge harmonics, and the poly-phony is dense, but it's all quite easy on the ear.
The work's centre of gravity is a ruminative movement entitled "Passamezzo Farewell" – a pity he didn't explain this obscure term in his programme note – which builds up its effects to achieve an austere beauty: the intricacy of his musical game is at once puzzling and pleasing. The final movement – a hornpipe put through a postmodern mangle – ends mid-phrase (we read in the programme that the score doesn't end with the usual double bar-line).
In other words, though this work was planned to complete the set, Maxwell Davies refuses to draw a line under it – he wants to leave the door open for more. As he puts it, this hornpipe could either lead straight back to the opening of Quartet No 1, or else it could lead "into something as yet unwritten". If it's take your pick, I'll choose the latter.
The Maggini Quartet, who have recorded all 10 works, delivered this one with graceful attack, and they maintained immaculate control of the dramatically fluctuating dynamics. And by sandwiching the Maxwell Davies piece between Haydn's Opus 20 No 5 and Beethoven's third Razumovsky quartet, they allowed it to shine in the most august company.Reuse content