Naxos Quartet No. 2

For string quartet


41 minutes



Dedication Ian Kellam - Ian Kellam was a close friend of Max and of a smilar age. Ian was a composer and an antique dealer based in Moreton on the Marsh who wore wonderful shirts.

Commissioned by Naxos





Violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello


1. Lento- Allegro
2. Lento Flessibile
3. Allegro
4. Lento Flessibile


Composer Notes

The second of the series of ten quartets commissioned by Naxos records was finished in January, 2003. It has four movements: the second and third are closely related, and separated by only a very brief pause, and the first is the most substantial.

A slow, hushed introduction defines the outlines of harmonic and rhythmic spaces which the first movement -and indeed the whole work – will fill out. One hears the shapes at a distance, as if enshrouded in fog. The Allegro proper has a firm initial nine-bar sentence, where Scottish dance rhythms prevail, followed by what I think of as its shadow – a pianissimo echo, where the phrases within the sentence are now divided by short insertions, foreshadowing second subject harmonies. A D minor cadence signposts clearly the termination of the first subject.

The second subject group has four sections of contrasting natures, of which the last, in a defining sequence of chords, clinches the tonal space – the ultimate C minor chord functions clearly, I hope, as an F minor dominant, within the discipline of a most perfect pandiagonal magic square.

A Germanic, in the classical sense, development follows; do not be deceived by the premature return to D minor, and what seems to be the initiation of a second exposition with inverted material – this is a trap, merely triggering the next developmental procedures. This whole section suggests to me a maze of mirrors, some distorting.

Where the recapitulation is expected, I have placed the mere ghost of a scherzo, all in pianissimo, which bridges into and prepares the harmonic ground for a coda. This coda refers back to the end of the exposition, but dwells on the augmented fourth away from the D tonic, as outlined in the first bars of the introduction, and of the Allegro. The joined up melodic line suggests that the whole movement has ultimately been monothematic, all along.

The second movement has two parts – a recitative, full of drama and contrast, and a short, expressive arioso.

A scherzo proper follows directly: I thought of this as an Intermezzo, offering some gentle relief. It ends with a brief reference to the opening of the second movement, underlining the unity in diversity of the pair.

The fourth is a slow movement, and builds gradually, and I would like to think, inevitably, to the harmonic core and crystallisation of the processes set in motion. The final AC diad mediates quite decisively between the dominant of D minor, and a major resolution of F minor.

This quartet is dedicated to the composer Ian Kellam. He was my first musical friend, when we both played our compositions on BBC Children’s Hour, more than fifty years ago.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Roderic Dunnett

From its spellbindingly mysterious opening, the Second Naxos Quartet grips you with its urgent contrasts and the Bartok/Janacek-like energy of its searing attack and nervy, petulant utterance. It confirms how astonishingly versed Maxwell Davies is in the string quartet medium, as seen in his surprise, Haydn-like trompes-d’oeil (or rather -oreille) and the work’s Beethoven-informed structure, building and dissolving expectations, plus several nods to Debussy and beyond. The first movement’s prestissimo makes way for what Max terms a ‘dramatic recitative’ (including strangely disconsolate musings in the cello and an astonishing fadeout) and ensuing hymnic ‘arioso’. A scherzo follows (earlier, we had only its ‘ghost’); this too produces its own ghostly imagery. Then, almost as if appended, comes a wonderful 15-minute extended Lento (again marked ‘flessibile’), calling to mind the Mahlerian conclusion to Max’s Second Taverner Fantasia: excitable winged flurries fail to dislodge the serene, almost sage slow unfolding of this unerringly beautiful, even prayerful evocation, culminating in a gorgeous, reluctant apotheosis.


First Performance

Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham (as part of the Cheltenham International Festival)

Friday, 11 July 2003

Maggini Quartet