Coffee Concert 23rd January 2022 – Maxwell Quartet – Strings Attached Review by Helen Simpson and Guy Richardson
Colin Scobie violin, George Smith violin, Elliott Perks Viola, Duncan Strachan Cello.
Today’s concert was the first of the new year, in a difficult winter with uncertainty over the pandemic continuing. However, the commitment of the large audience was obvious and there was a real sense of welcoming the return of the Maxwell Quartet who had been with us just before Covid struck.
There was a change to the advertised repertoire, with Haydn’s op 77, no 1 being played instead of no2. These two op 77 quartets are among the very last of such pieces and Haydn’s maturity and absolute command of the quartet forces show clearly. The reason for the switch was explained by the Violist whose instrument had “exploded” after a tour in the USA, leaving little rehearsal time for today’s concert.
The Haydn opened with absolute poise and lightness of touch. The ensemble was finely judged and responsive. There were solo passages with bravura playing which then gave way to more homogenous textures, rhythmic and dynamic alterations and overall a feeling of four instruments in close conversation with one another. There were clear references and influences from folk and traditional melodies; these were relished by the players who dug into their strings and could have been playing for dancers outdoors. Temporarily the aesthetic shifted towards the vernacular. The piece closed with a highly controlled unison passage which soon dissolved into the conversational style. A brilliant uplifting passage played with great momentum and intent finally brought this quartet to its close. As the opening piece in the concert, it was a great choice and was energetically and sensitively played by the Maxwells.
Dvorak’s quartet in G, written on his return to Czechoslovakia after three years in the USA was introduced to us today with a brief impromptu demonstration of difference between Haydn’s cello writing and that of Dvorak. Roughly a hundred years apart and in Dvorak’s case with undoubted influences from the New World as well as across Europe the four instruments of the quartet are the same but their scores show more complex harmonies, rhythmic qualities and often a more equal distribution of melodic lines. Each of the four has a real part in the conversations. The quartet opens in an optimistic calm mood and the very close communication amongst the players ensures that when necessary the mood shifts and all the tautness of dance rhythms bursts out with little preparation. There was exquisite playing here in the Adagio and the almost imperceptible nuances of accent and emphasis kept this dark movement vibrant. There was plenty of energy in the Scherzo and the final movement marked Allegro reminded us again of dance and traditional melodies of Dvorak’s homeland. We had been told that this is a huge piece and indeed it is, not least in the range of textures, moods, pace and styles that it shows. This piece shows the outstanding quality of the Maxwell Quartet whose very close ensemble and acute awareness shows throughout their chosen repertoire.
by Helen Simpson
Maxwell Quartet – Prokofiev Quartet No 1
After their performance of the Haydn and before the Prokofiev, The Maxwell Quartet treated us to their own arrangements of three Scottish folk songs, and what a delight they were! The first was a sad lament with subtle bagpipe effects, which lead into a reflective melody on the cello and then into a high spirited lively jig with some wonderful offbeat rhythms. Their new album features arrangements of Scottish folksongs, so if these performances are anything to go by, it will be a hit!
The Maxwells launched into the first movement of the Prokofiev, which is an energetic Allegro, with all the commitment they showed throughout the whole concert. The movement has an overall nervous energy with some more reflective moments, and the often elaborate contrapuntal textures were beautifully delineated by the players.
A slow, slightly dark and poignant introduction, which opens with a phrase reminiscent of the questioning motto from Beethoven’s final quartet, led into a scherzo where the group brought out the contrasts between the driving rhythms and more delicate textures. As with the first movement the scherzo ends in an exhilarating and defiant passage which they played with great panache.
The gentle oscillating chords which open the third movement were a lovely contrast after the relentless energy of the previous movements , and the ensuing dialogue between the first violin and cello beautifully phrased. The group nicely sustained the long lyrical phrases which are interwoven between the instruments and which is a real feature of this movement, and as Chris Darwin points out in his programme note, something Prokofiev learnt from his studies of Beethoven’s quartets.
The faster but quietly dissonant and slightly sinister passage towards the end of the movement came as a surprise – one wonders what Prokofiev was inferring here. Then delicate pizzicatos and short phrases brought the movement to a reflective close.
It was such a pleasure to see the total commitment of these players and the joy and at times sense of fun in their playing. I can’t wait until they return.
by Guy Richardson