Tag Archives: Maxwell Quartet

Maxwell Quartet

Perth Concert Hall

How very well chosen were this pair of crucial works of the string quartet repertoire, complementary in their forging ahead with the form, well short of two decades apart in their composition, and each utterly emblematic of the voice of the composer.

Just as significantly, Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet, Opus 74 No 3, and Beethoven’s “Harp”, his 10th String Quartet and also, curiously, Opus 74, are works for an experienced group to explore fully. Just as they are mature works by their respective composers, they are pieces for a well-established quartet. The Maxwells are that group, no longer youths who met at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and won their first international recognition at the Trondheim competition. Even the flowing lockdown locks and bushy beards cannot disguise that.

The crisp and vibrant opening Allegro of the Haydn made that intent immediately obvious, but it was the rich, blended sound in the Largo that follows that confirmed it, with first violin Colin Scobie on special form on top. The short Menuetto began and ended with as much flourish before the Finale that gives the work its nickname through its galloping rhythms. This is Haydn at his most playful and smile-provoking, and there were smiles all round to confirm that.

If it is possible that Haydn indeed had horse-riding in his mind, it is less likely that Beethoven was in any sense trying to mimic the harp with his pizzicato writing in the opening movement of his Opus 74. Although the composer was already battling encroaching deafness, the first movement is all about the particular character of the plucked string resonance on these instruments, a responsibility that is passed around the ensemble and was sparklingly played and recorded here. Once again, Scobie was on fine robust and lyrical form with his lead line.

As in the closing Allegro of the Haydn, the Adagio second movement is as much about the spaces between the notes as the notes themselves, and here again the Maxwell displayed their mature, unhurried but decisive, approach to the score. The Finale is a very close rhythmic cousin of the opening of the Fifth Symphony, which Beethoven had premiered only a year earlier, and that was made very clear in the quartet’s coherent attack from bar one. Classic performances of two pivotal pieces.

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

Maxwell Quartet : Haydn / Scots Trad.

Linn 

Listen to just the first two chords on this new Linn release by the Maxwell Quartet and you might be forgiven for thinking a good old Scottish ceilidh was about to spring into action. But these “gathering notes” are not the typical call-to-attention we associate with a traditional reel or jig, they are heralding the first of Haydn’s Op 74 string quartets, the spinal column of this cheerful new album featuring all three of the 1793 set.

How fortuitous is that primitive cadential opening to No 1, when the other side to this Classical offering is an interspersion of Scots folk music? The Maxwell’s have made a thing of mixing in their own arrangements of the latter in their live concerts. This Caledonian sprinkling is just as refreshing and invigorating in the recorded context.

But let’s start with the triptych of Haydn quartets, the Op 74 set, that fully complements the three Op 71s featured on the Maxwell’s Linn debut disc a couple of years ago, which also contains Scots fiddle tune arrangements. Both Haydn sets resulted from his first highly-successful London trip of 1791, where his experience of dedicated chamber music concerts (as opposed to the more restrained drawing room practices of his native Austria) elicited a spring-like creative response from the sexagenarian composer.

The Maxwells capture that buoyancy in all three works. The first C major quartet’s unquenchable exuberance, delivered with an enlivening grainy tonal edge, is tempered by moments of deep thinking, even probing darkness, such as the psychologically offsetting key shift that establishes the opening Allegro’s more plangent development. 

The second F major quartet has its own mysteries to fathom, its subtler nuances to shape, not so much in the two straightforward central movements as in the outermost ones, the boisterous finale in particular applying Mozartian trickery through mischievous structural and harmonic surprises, as if Haydn was honouring his recently deceased compatriot. The opening bars of the final G minor “Rider” quartet, the best known of the set, conjures up an enigmatic spirit more akin to – or rather preemptive of – Beethoven, which the Maxwells latch onto craftily, setting a high bar for a truly exhilarating performance.

Against all that are the Scots numbers, beautiful and wholesome arrangements by the ensemble itself, from the gracious father-son “classicism” of Niel and Nathaniel Gow (the latter’s melting air, Coilsfield House, raptly arranged), to the gorgeously lilting Fear a’ Bhàta, a frisky Shetland jig Da Full Rigged Ship and haunting swagger of The Burning of the Piper’s Hut, anonymous and thought to date back to the Highland Clearances. 

The magic of this album is the way these two musical traditions knit so effectively together. Haydn never visited Scotland (although he did arrange Burns’ songs for the 18th century Edinburgh publisher George Thomson) but if he had his music would have had Enlightenment Scotland dancing in the streets.
Ken Walton