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Maxwell Quartet debut at The Dome Coffee Concerts, at The Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), Sussex University, Falmer, on Sunday, December 8, 2019 (11am). Colin Scobie, George Smith (violins), Elliott Perks (viola), Duncan Strachan (cello).
Haydn, Quartet in C major Op74 No1 (1793); Scottish Folk music, Maxwell’s own arrangements of song ‘The Boatman’, traditional jig ‘Da Full Rigged Ship’ and reel ‘The New Rigged Ship’; Joey Roukens (b 1982), Visions at Sea (2011); Schubert, Quartet in D minor D810 ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824).
Four beards, four black informal shirts and trousers, four pairs of light tan brogues matching the wood of four stringed instruments. Three Scots, one Sassenach from Dorking, and naming themselves Maxwell after the clan of their cellist – who pronounces his Strachan dropping the ‘c’ and welcomes their audience to ‘a belter of a programme we have for you’.
Four men in their 30s, their leader in publicity pictures with his tie industrially askew as they stand on the beach of a loch, as if ready to defend their land to the death with their instruments. Only kilts are lacking, although when they appear in the United States they play in them – and the yanks love it, their violist from Surrey (who performs in trews) unsurprisingly informed me.
The sight and sound of a new cell of energy on the String Quartet circuit.
Elliott Perks intimated that Maxwell Quartet dare not yet perform English concerts in their kilts. And in presenting their own homeland traditional folk arrangements, there seemed a holding in check during the jig and reel one can only presume was in habitual caution to the conservatism of the archetypal British chamber music club.
This was their Coffee Concert debut and they quickly learned they had been too timid. During the interval as they returned from an outside breather, greeting listeners urged them to be bolder. This is Brighton, laddies! We live by the sea and we’re aware of folk tradition. No need to hold back for us. Go for it!
They had performed Haydn’s astutely bold, London-eyed C major quartet from Opus 74. An opportunity, if you like, for a border country rusticity and a highland dancer’s light-footedness. Haydn, from an Austro-Hungarian inevitably folk community, was around this time helping others set some 400 folk songs of the three Celtic home nations. He was the hottest property a publisher could recruit for the project.
The Maxwells were driven by their clansman Strachan, built like a small bear and one of the more invigorating quartet cellists. Morning wake-up Haydn joie de vivre, the full enjoyment conveyed by the musicians. The second movement graceful as intended. Their minuet almost skipping. The finale straight from the town square, triumphant bagpipes droning on the cello’s open bottom two strings.
A piece made for the Maxwell. As would be Haydn’s similar Symphony No 82 finale for a Scottish orchestra. Straight after this, second fiddle George Smith took the leader’s chair for the folk. Following Jean Finlayson’s gentle Gaelic 19th Century courtship folk song** from the Isle of Lewis, it was easy to wonder if their Shetland shipping jig and reel came with a wee dram of classical restraint.
To insert this spot in the programme was only a quadrant of the adventurous Maxwell calling card. The scene had been subtly swung from metropolitan Haydn to maritime music down the ages. Next up, a contemporary composer from another seafaring nation, The Netherlands, and at the prospect the connecting image of The Flying Dutchman unavoidably came to mind.
Joey Roukens’ psychologically edged Visons at Sea, occupies 17 imaginative minutes. It draws on instrumental effects and devices to paint shifting scenes of mist, fog, surge, swell, tempest and disaster, with drifting, crystallising then de-materialising recall of shanties and sailor songs in varying intensity.
It was an riveting first listen and brilliant concert programming. Someone probably tipped off the Maxwell about the Brighton Coffee Concert audience being ever up for something spicy, stimulating or even challenging after the opening fruit juice or cereal.
An interesting survey would investigate who bought a ticket on the strength of the attractive first half of the concert or for the familiar power of Schubert in the second. The famous D810 in D minor portents a customarily sombre and haunting atmosphere of his song’s dialogue between Death (who is friendly) and the Maiden, but which allows her initial fear and a nightmarish scenario to saturate the whole Quartet.
In simplification, the opening movement is commonly seen as stern and all about fate knocking on Schubert’s door so soon after Beethoven’s. The Scherzo a glimpse into hellish turmoil and the Tarantella a poisoned dance to death. Most fans of ‘Death and the Maiden’ enjoy the magnetism of its darkness more than its light.
But the Maxwell’s reading harked at the danger of conventionally presuming the composer’s mood or intentions. Perhaps Schubert simply wanted to write a serious quartet in a minor key and chose D to see what came out. Yes, flitting musical spectres and shafts of light through banks of the blackest clouds grip the ear and the slow movement based on the titular song is the calmer eye of the storm. But Schubert never ceases to juxtapose light with darkness, major with minor.
Maxwell Quartet’s rasping opening bars sounded uncannily Scottish. Immediately they launched the music into a perpetual quickness, urgency and with an athleticism that lifted it away from grimness or soul-searching as though into a quest for discovery, an almost optimistic endeavour to erase plaguing doubt. The inescapable hushed groping before the coda had an arresting value that made the final bars like an illuminated but exhausted arrival home.
Their Scherzo first time around was taut but with elbow room. Its central section came with an air of nostalgia from which the returning Scherzo bounded resolutely away. Their Tarantella was a crisp and virile game of dancing hide and seek with Strachan’s cello injecting authoritative drama, but with space for some beautiful moments of ensemble before the straining and wrenching, yet still lighter-skied conclusion.
The song? I sensed Maxwell narrating it, not merely exploring its variations. Was this Schubert dispensing with the singer? Scobie’s lead violin was the shocked and petrified girl, flickeringly tremulous. The cello and viola soothe her terror. Death is her friend.
The vigorous variation next, like her panic and bewilderment, contrasted with great cello subtlety – as though the consoling whisperings of Death? Then she visionarily sings and pirouettes, to choral accompaniment in the major key. A crisis of belief, heart pounding, cello insistent, is soothed by Perks’ viola and she at last relinquishes her trepidation in serene acceptance.
The Maxwells will blow further cobwebs off the quartet scene. They are musicians of our new time. The future is theirs to share as audiences become more catholic with fresh open minds. One day – perhaps soon, after all – they will wear kilts at Wigmore Hall and wake up London!
From Scotland we enjoy violinist Nicola Benedetti , pianist Steven Osborne, now Maxwell Quartet. The Coffee Concerts will want them back. The ladies will want to see the hair on their legs and pack the first 10 rows.
** See the version by Capercaillie: http://www.ericdentinger.com/boatman_en.html