Coffee Concert 8th December 2019 – Maxwell Quartet – Strings Attached Review by Guy Richardson

The Maxwell Quartet opened their recital with a stunning performance of Haydn’s Quartet  Op 74 No 1 in C. From the start the degree of  interplay between the players was clear and their commitment to the music total. The rhythms were full  of vitality, with some wonderful dramatic contrasts, particularly in the central development section.

The Andante was played with real elegance, with some lovely dialogue between the two violins and the viola and cello, and with very subtle and at times almost minimal vibrato, they achieved great purity of tone.

The Minuet had tremendous rhythmic vigour,  contrasting with the more gentler passages, and the central Trio was lyrical and flowing, but still maintaining the sense of dance. The lead into the return of the Minuet was beautifully handled so the actual return came as a lovely surprise.

The Finale was again full of vitality with jazzy off-beats and drone-like passages contrasting with playing of great delicacy, and the sense of fun and humour was palpable.

When I first saw  that there would be some Scottish Folk Music, I thought how on earth would this fit into the overall programme, but the drones in the Haydn somehow provided a natural link, and the very effective arrangements by the cellist Duncan Strachan of a lilting and poignant melody from the Isle of Lewis, leading into a lively reel and jig form the Shetlands made me want to stand up and dance!

This was followed by a beautifully atmospheric piece by the young Dutch composer Joey Roukens called Visions at Sea. An eerily quiet opening led into a lyrical passage featuring almost romantic melodic phrases, which in turn gradually speeded up into a brief dance-like episode ( another link with the dances we heard before) and then a slow build up to an intense climax. After some ghostly echoes of the dance and a further rhythmic climax the piece led into a muted and very beautiful quiet ending ( sadly slightly marred by a mobile phone going off!).

This was a new work full of contrasts and character, which beautifully and effortlessly blended a  subtly tonal language with more experimental writing, proving contemporary classical ( for want of a better term) can be totally engaging and rewarding.

After the interval we were treated to one of the best performances I think I’ve ever heard of Schubert’s Quartet in D minor, D. 810 (Death and the Maiden ). There were lots of details in the score, particularly in the accompaniment figures, I’ve never noticed before. So often Schubert’s glorious melodies are brought out at the expense of wonderfully subtle accompanying ideas.

The sheer involvement of the players in what is such a familiar piece was intense, and at times it was great to see the cellist not looking at his music but just watching and engaging with the others.

The freshness of their approach was particularly striking in the quiet passage before the coda of the first movement which to my ears sounded strikingly modern.

Played without vibrato,  the quiet opening chords of the Andante had a wonderful purity of sound and no hint of sentimentality. The more robust and intense passages  were contrasted with playing of great delicacy.

The Scherzo  was played with vigour, with a lilting and lyrical contrast in the Trio section.
The final Presto was so alive and vital it created a thrilling close to the work.

I really hope we get another chance soon to hear these players again in the Coffee Concert series. Their programme was a great mix of the intriguing, the unusual and the familiar, all played with equal passion and commitment.