In 2000, the recording company Naxos commissioned a series of ten string quartets from the British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Over the course of five years (2002-07), Davies is required to produce two quartets a year, to be premiered and subsequently recorded for Naxos by the Maggini Quartet. By March 2006, eight of the ten quartets will have been performed; the first six have already been recorded.
From the outset, the uniqueness of this project has given the quartets a high media profile, which has been sustained through critical acclaim and numerous awards for the recording of the first two quartets. Much of this reception has focussed on the classicising tendencies within the cycle. These tendencies include Davies’s engagement with classical models, particularly those suggested by Haydn and Beethoven, as well as the ways in which the cycle relates to the grand tradition of the string quartet, from the Viennese classics through to the twentieth century. Less attention has been paid to the ways in which the modernist features of Davies’s music both enrich and challenge this classical heritage, as well as his own expressionist past.
In this paper, I will examine first the critical reception of Davies’s on-going Naxos cycle, focussing on the role that dissemination has to play in constructing this reception. I will consider the success of both the Naxos label in general and the recordings of the quartets as well as Davies’s own website www.maxopus.com and the ways in which the quartets have been marketed. Secondly, I will turn my attention to the musical forms, structures and processes in the quartets in order to problematise the dominant discourse surrounding the reception of the Naxos
quartets. In doing so, I will outline the ways in which Davies’s quartets can be (re)presented as classical music for the twenty-first century, situated within what might be construed a contemporary mainstream, and the ways in which they actively resist and challenge such an interpretation.