Despite being limited to music for piano, clarinet and string quartet, this programme gives a remarkably clear picture of Peter Maxwell Davies’s art. In the short 1952 Quartet Movement, the 18-year-old composer handles complex polyrhythms with aplomb and individually. The Five Piano Pieces and the Clarinet Sonata show him, in the middle of the 1950s, handling post-Webern extended serialism in a very personal way. We hear tranquil, sparse episodes, sudden tempestuous outbursts, and more generally speaking ideas that are very precisely and distinctively articulated. Maxwell Davies creates a powerful sense of space, as in a landscape painting where subtle gradations of light and colour create effects of distance and atmosphere. This quality is just as apparent in the last of the Piano Pieces as at the end of the Little Quartet no. 1 or in The Seven Brightnesses, with its extraordinary, gleaming high notes.
The two works from the 1960s could hardly be more different from such angular, painterly works: the String Quartet is tranquil for the most part, and expressively quite cool; Hymnos, belonging to the same period as music theatre works like Revelation and Fall and Eight Songs for a Mad King, full of extreme, expressionistic contrasts. Guy Cowley and Ian Pace’s playing is strong and well controlled, though they do not neglect the necessary touch of wildness that characterised the original performances and recording by Alan Hacker and Stephen Pruslin. All the playing, indeed, is excellent – the Kreutzer Quartet’s pure tone and fine intonation are great assets in the pared-down idiom of the two Little Quartets. With realistic, sensitive recording, this is a must for anyone interested in Maxwell Davies.