JOHN MAW – The Third Quartet

British Contemporary composer John Nicholas Maw [1935-2009] wrote four string quartets and a further, named work, Intrada for string quartet. Maw’s music shows quite a diversity of styles, usually tending towards the modern. The Third Quartet, from 1994, is in five movements and in itself, contains a lot of variation.

A conservative solo violin dominates the opening, with sporadic interjections from the ensemble. A change occurs with the cello taking over the solo violin line. The structure of this melodic line is that it seems to turn back on itself, creating a slight sense of abstraction. This variation between violin and cello is presented several times. The texture now becomes a little dense although the same lines prevail, they are just louder. Slowly the dynamics drop and the density disperses, leading to a gentle close, which is the only time in the work where the next movement doesn’t connect.

The second movement, marked larghetto pesante (heavy and ponderous), again opens with a solo violin presence, played with a rough tone. There is a soft multi-stringed drone present as the violin manipulates an abstruse melody. Now, as in the first movement, the cello takes the solo role and the violin joins into the sustained drone – the cello is very expressive here, and the drone of violins is a fine backdrop. The return of the violin has the cello providing pizzicato interest, and it works its way into the upper register to another gentle feeling of susurrus, with a touch of glissando.

There is no gap preceding the next movement, which quickly moves into another passage of cello over a droning string background. The violin washes over the cello, in a scurrying manner, before leading into a turgid section of busy cello and rapid violin strokes. The intensity rises and a sustained, dissonant chord has both violins exchanging phrases, leading to a frenzied passage.

Again the fourth movement follows directly from the third, where an intense section has the ensemble in conflict, with strongly rhythmic assertions from all instruments, at a rapid tempo, which slowly diminishes – the rhythmic nature does not. A solo violin excursion leads to further aggressive dialogues between violin and strong cello, creating some powerful music. Eventually, a return to solo violin has it rapidly reduce the intensity as it moves into a sustained tone. Nearing the end, the music positively groans with a strong sense of dissonant glissando moving straight into the final movement.

This is marked lento molto and generates a slow, atonal, distant peaceful nature. A lamenting solo violin drifts over a measured but prominent cello – there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between the two voices. A period of one violin is short and the cello returns. I must confess to rarely being aware of the full ensemble, even on headphones. Possibly they are playing at a low volume. Another increase in intensity has the violin and cello sparring with each other, creating a considerable amount of tension. A quite confronting passage leads to a similar sound to the opening thematic material, which even sounds pastoral for a time. That’s atonal pastoral, not your gentle English countryside version. A busy solo violin works its way into a lament and the strings are actually quite harmonious, while also being very sparse. The final passage is a beautiful piece of writing, with a gentle fade.

Being of an atonal nature, this music contains no memorable melodies and precious little harmony. However I do feel that it has been worth the journey – it is rarely confronting, rather an investigation into various moods.

This CD is paired with Benjamin Britten’s Third Quartet, a fine work which I feel is more dissonant and confronting than the Maw. The CD appears to be titled Britten: String Quartet no.3, Three Divertimenti, Maw: String Quartet no.3, by the Coull Quartet on the Somm label. It is on Amazon US but appears to be much cheaper on Amazon UK

This CD is on Spotify, and the work can be sampled on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Most enjoyable, non-confronting modern work.


2 thoughts on “JOHN MAW – The Third Quartet”

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