COLIN SCOBIE: First violin

GEORGE SMITH: Second violin




Monday 3rdDecember, 2018

Monday’s performance given by the Maxwell String Quartet was the third in the series of six events promoted by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts. It absolutely maintained the exceptional quality that has been the dominant feature of all our promotions to date this year.

The Maxwell Quartet opened their performance with the Quartet in B flat op. 71 no.1 by Joseph Haydn. Haydn, often referred to as the father of the string quartet and perhaps the symphony as well seemed most often a ‘cheerie chappy’ something that often comes through in his music. It certainly did in today’s performance by the Maxwell Quartet. Their playing was light, free and often blazing with energy. Five incisive chords opened the first movement. The first of these even made the tinsel at the bottom of the Queen’s Cross Christmas tree start swinging, probably with the wind from second violinist George Smith’s vigorous first bow stroke. This was followed by a slow motif, then we were into the allegro proper. There were moments of delightful delicacy, contrasted with fiery playing of great intensity especially from cellist Duncan Strachan whose vigorous bowing gave the music a fine firm footing.

The second movement, Adagio, had a dance-like undercurrent in which all four players presented the most delightfully graceful momentary poses in their bowings.

The Menuetto was fast moving, lively and energetic. It was here as well as in the jaunty finale that I sensed that feeling of sunny happiness radiating from Haydn’s music and from the players in the Maxwell Quartet who were clearly enjoying playing as much as I was enjoying listening to them.

Tchaikovsky was not so happy in life as Haydn appeared to be, but before his Quartet No. 1 in D op. 11 the Maxwell Quartet had three more cheerful pieces of music for us as a special extra treat. They mentioned Haydn’s interest in folk music. That was true of Tchaikovsky and occasionally of Beethoven as well but being a Quartet who are Scottish in origin, they decided to give us three wholly Scottish fiddle pieces,  the outer two by J. Scott Skinner and the middle piece by second violinist George Smith who took over from Colin Scobie as leader for these pieces. The first was The Rose of Allenvale. Scott Skinner is actually buried in Allenvale Cemetery in a very ornate tomb which bears the legend “Talent does what it can, genius does what it must.”

George Smith opened the first piece as a fiddle solo while the others joined gradually with a kind of bagpipe drone opening up later in harmonies. George’s tune was a lively dance leading into the well named Scott Skinner tune, The Hurricane.

After that it was time for the Tchaikovsky Quartet. The melody in the opening movement definitely obeyed the suggestion in today’s programme note ‘impassioned’. There was delicious ensemble playing throughout this movement. I have often heard the second movement played, sometimes just on its own, but never before with such delicacy on the Maxwell Quartet’s muted strings. Much of it was played pianissimo but still with burning intensity. I heard things tonight that I have never noticed before. The lovely viola part came through clearly, played so beautifully by Elliot Perks for instance.

The Scherzo was lighter and brighter and Tchaikovsky, courtesy of the Maxwell Quartet, managed to make the finale sound relatively cheerful. It seemed at times as though Duncan Strachan was dancing with his cello.

After the interval, Elliot Perks introduced and explained several of the colourful features of the epic work that was to follow, Beethoven’s Quartet no. 13 in B flat op. 130. It really is an amazing work almost the last that Beethoven composed. What a tragedy that he was never himself able to hear it. It has so many contrasting string textures, rhythms, melodies and structures and the Maxwell Quartet managed to deliver all of these so brilliantly. There is of course so much going on in this work that a definitive performance is impossible. Of course that is why we keep going to live concerts and on Monday, the Maxwell Quartet did us proud.

The contrasts between slow and fast loud and soft, gentle and fiery were well covered in their performance of the opening movement. The following Presto was light and skittish, sounding hurried but deliberately so and in an exciting way.

In the Andante it was as if the strings were on tip toe, the music was delivered with such lightness of touch. Elliot Perks had explained what was to happen in the Alla danza tedesca and so it did. The players took us along with them on a swirling twirling dance.

There was particularly lovely gentle playing in the Cavatina, the ensemble had great clarity and as Beethoven had requested it was indeed ‘molto espressivo’. In this movement Beethoven was way ahead of his time. If this movement were set for full string orchestra it would sound startlingly like one of Mahler’s symphonic Adagios.

The Maxwell Quartet had decided to play the famous Große Fuge as the final movement of the Quartet. There were passages of dazzling vehemence but others of transparent lightness as well. Elliot Perks mentioned that a movement of this quartet was recorded on the Voyager spacecraft. Actually Carl Sagan is famous for a quote when he was asked if we should send a recording of a Bach fugue on Voyager. He replied, ‘No, that would just be showing off.’ Well sending a recording of Beethoven’s Große Fuge would be just that – perhaps even more so. It is fascinating to listen to how Beethoven manages to marry together the winding up of the fugue along with that of a more classical era movement in the music. The Maxwell Quartet managed to illustrate that so well in their performance.

A huge long lasting ovation from the Aberdeen audience brought forth another Scottish piece. It was by Neil Gow and entitled ‘Drunk at night, dry in the morning’. How sad. I am now much too old for that sort of thing!


The Maxwell Quartet – 3rd December 2018: Review