Do you get more for your money at a Maxwell Quartet concert? Plenty of evidence here. Three extra unbilled pieces: an arresting Scottish Lament for a husband who, riding away from his own wedding feast, fell off his horse and died in the mud – plus two reels followed. No surprise if you’ve seen the group before.
Average string quartet concerts find unthinkable such things rubbing shoulders with our great composers. Nor do they feature no male musicians wearing high-church black. Nor bind it all together with such cheery convivial repartee with the audience, almost as though sharing a cafe table.
A Coffee Concerts crowd doesn’t suddenly leap from 58% of their average ticket sales to 95% just because government pandemic restrictions are due to be partially lifted despite still-rising case figures. In 2019, the Maxwells debuted here in the penultimate ‘Cappucinoiad’ before pandemic lockdown. It seems many of the 180 listeners now had enjoyed the flavour and returned, even if only to sample their Haydn, Prokofiev and Dvorak.
When the sole Englishman of the Quartet after the opening Haydn asked the audience if they fancied hearing something from their new all-Scottish CD, eager thumbs went vertical.
No ceremony is stood on. Elliott Perks had introduced themselves right away, not by leaping straight into Haydn’s final Opus 77 No 2 but sharing their story from two days previously in America (where they play in kilts, my female editor reminds me). Earsplittingly, his shocked viola had cracked, musically seconds before the interval, unable to stomach its 8,000ft atmospheric plummet between concerts in Colorado and now California.
This loss of his pet instrument made impossible the rehearsal of their Brighton-advertised Haydn Opus 77 No 2. So instead they’d play the No 1 the Californians were listening to. Pop went Chris Darwin’s programme notes and example staves on No 2, all bar the introductory paragraph to Opus 77 itself!
Then, after the album plug, Perks confessed Prokofiev, advertised as last, would work better done now. Mounting programming chaos and spontaneity – and, indeed, a wise decision that was. Except that the Attenborough Centre lighting operation covered their faces with more egg at the end.
They raised prematurely the house lights, violating the audience’s contemplation and emotional recovery from sustained slow, troubled music easily and deeply evoking the Russian composer’s known homesickness while in the US. And of course the lights coming up thoughtlessly curtailed grateful applause to the musicians.
Two different lighting crew members had done the same at the Coffee Concert before, but the pair this time said they’d not received the instructions from The Dome to prevent such an unprofessional recurrence. Further team training seems required.
The Maxwells were characteristically concert-clothed according to their own wardrobe. Their only uniform was unbuttoned white shirt with light tan shoes matching the instruments. The rest, including socks, was haphazard variety.
From left to right, leader Colin Scobie had a dark, large-check Tweed suit; second violin George Smith and violist Perks (hair in a bun) had shed their paler suit jackets, displaying one single-breasted waistcoat, one double-breasted, and one shirt collarless; cellist Duncan Strachan (hair also in a bun) was in a mid-brown Tweed jacket and dark trousers.
Matching this, they smile more than average: they seem to be having more enjoyment than the average string quartet and flout any law forbidding it.
Strachan is among the most animated and watchable of the circuit’s cellists. Scobie, formerly young second fiddle in the legendary Fitzwilliams, sits upright, right back in his chair (“I play better standing up, so that’s the posture I need”). Despite bearing overall the most demanding instrumental parts, from start to finish he looks the most relaxed, while the others all lean forward on their seats.
Strachan (leave the ‘c’ silent), their website creator, took over communications to introduce descriptively the Dvorak. A Scottish accent this time. At the end, composer and the Maxwells shared the reward of an audience reception with far more shouting and floor stamping than would be seemly at your average, old-fashioned chamber concert. But this is no ordinary audience.
In the front row were a family, at their first Coffee Concert, a mixture of French and Greek, whose three young daughters there were all learning violin. “We saw it was on, and came”. The new phase of enthusiasm for this intimate form of music, for which the Maxwells are among those firmly responsible, is palpably surviving the pandemic, and possibly expanding.
Seats are switched as George Smith plays first violin in the Scottish traditional stuff and as the Lament began, the other three in a drone, his sound was hardly differentiable from a melancholic bagpipe chanter. ‘Heritage Folk’ is now being blended in, by themselves and a few others such as The Danish String Quartet. British classical fiddlers of the new generation are feeling free to look deeper into the soil and celebrate their country’s musical roots. Bring on more.
What of the Maxwell Quartet in standard repertoire? Don’t let the clothes deceive you. They’ve been going 11 years. Real authority is there, collective and four-fold. Playing Scottish dances is akin to playing Czech-Bohemian ones (Dvorak), Russo-Slavic (Prokofiev) or Austro-Hungarian (Haydn). International curtains don’t intervene, they just colour.
The Maxwells, all bearded for battle, are not afraid, where it’s needed, of the scrunchier end of the Quartet textural sound fabric, and we now strings speak in voices silken or velveteen, but also of hardy Tweed or rugged Highlander plaid.
Their Haydn delivered his music buyer Prince Rasumovsky his rousing and eye-winking dance party. Their Prokofiev projected his world of chugging rhythms, spitting and sparking life and vigour, then this work’s despairing and longing, to its ultimate exhaustion. Their Dvorak had its piling and pouring complexity of rhythm, energy and passionate sentiment, in a happy homecoming from the States for the composer.
The Maxwells were probably experiencing slightly similar after that crazy Californian interval (“Guys and Chicks, might there be a viola in the house?”). After all, how can a string player, especially a cellist, carry a spare?
They escaped their hole when someone nipped home to sneak a viola away from his sleeping student son. And Scobie told me that in the following, concluding tour city they happened to have a friend living there who found them another. One imagines they’d earned the luck they got.
Expect more of unexpected from the Maxwells. Perhaps on their next Brighton return. They are probing Purcell for suitable viols music.
Richard Amey of the Worthing Herald and Brighton & Hove Independent