Maggini String Quartet/Davies, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

"In the Ninth quartet, I've gone to places I've never been before, some I didn't want to go to..." The words of Peter Maxwell Davies in a pre-concert talk on his latest quartet, which was receiving its premiere at the Wigmore Hall. This is the penultimate quartet in his series of 10 commissioned by Naxos for performance and recording by the estimable Maggini Quartet.

Davies regards his quartets as a novel. As he puts it: "The same rhythmic patterns, themes and moronic designs are developed like characters throughout, also the same magic square matrices, and architectural structures carry over from one quartet to the next."

The Ninth harks back particularly to his Third, written in 2003, which was prefaced by Davies: "It is a privilege and a duty to comment on one of the greatest disasters of our time." In this Ninth quartet, the anger and despair of the Iraq war that informed the Third is revisited, only now Davies fears a catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions: atom-bombs thrown by every race that wants to get the better of the other.

The Ninth is in six movements. Two places that Davies had never visited and had never wanted to were distinctive: squashed tuning, widening and diminishing particular intervals by less than a quarter tone; and a feeling of chaos. The work is structured so that the third, fourth and fifth movements reflect the first, second and sixth, the inner three working virtually as a quartet within a quartet.

Indeed, the same characters appear - the chirpy dances, the meandering, melancholy lines, the quotation of a 16th-century theme, in this case one of John Taverner's - but there is a tension, an intensity, an anger and a deceptive calm that is both disturbed and disturbing, verging on chaos.

Davies regards his Eighth quartet (receiving its London premiere) as the "intermezzo" of the 10 quartets. It picks up from the dolefulness of the Seventh's seven slow movements but is short - the right length to be accommodated with the Seventh on a CD. Davies has dedicated this work to the Queen but takes his musical cue from the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, even if structurally the string fantasies of Purcell impinge. With stratospherically high notes for the violin and a mournful intensity, it provides no balm.