Maggini Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London

"It is a privilege and a duty to comment on one of the greatest disasters of our time." The words of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, addressing the audience at the Wigmore Hall before the world premiere of his Third Naxos Quartet. A round of applause had greeted his earlier admission that his plan for his new quartet had been dislocated by "the worst foreign-policy move this country has made for 100 years" - ie, invading Iraq. Maxwell Davies has long been one of very few British composers willing to speak out, despite his claim that he is not a political composer.

Maxwell Davies' cycle of 10 quartets commissioned by the record company Naxos for performance and recording by the Maggini, their "house" quartet for British contemporary work, is well on its way. Maxwell Davies flirted with the string quartet back in his early days. Now, after his cycle of symphonies and concertos, chamber music in its purest manifestation, the string quartet, is occupying him, and will do so over a period of five years. In recent years, although works for large formations have dominated his writing, within many of them, sections exist of chamber proportions. And many will remember the powerful works written for the now-defunct chamber group, Fires of London.

It seems correct that, at this time of Maxwell Davies' life, he should be writing his "late" quartets. The Third Quartet - which, in this concert, preceded the London premiere of the Second Quartet - is wholly remarkable. In its emotional demand, there's little respite. The work is in four movements, the first beginning restlessly and fractured, becoming, in Maxwell Davies' words, "a pompous and empty military march". It ends, however, in slow, solemn melancholy. "In Nomine" is the title of the second movement: it feels like Maxwell Davies' Cavatina. The emotional rawness of this slow, weaving lament palpably recalls Beethoven, even if the raw material is drawn from 16th-century John Taverner. "Not in our name" is Maxwell Davies' intention. "Four Inventions and a Hymn" stands, scherzo-like, as the third movement, while "Fugue", alternating drained and bleached sounds with violent stabbing fortissimos, ends bitterly on a D-minor triad.

The message is clear, much clearer than that of the Second Quartet, completed in January this year. Perhaps the impact of the Third Quartet was so great that this slightly earlier work, at 45 minutes long, felt diffuse and harder to comprehend. Haydn's great Op 76 in D minor prefaced the two Maxwell Davies works; a good foil, but I would have welcomed two separate concerts: a Haydn and a Maxwell Davies, the latter played twice. Any chance?

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