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Gael force

A review by Julia Meredith

The Maxwell Quartet deserves its Celt following
Other than their suits (not black, though!) the four musicians of the Maxwell could have sidelined as extras on Braveheart. A certain loose-limbed swing as they walked onstage and sat down suggested that kilts would not have been unfamiliar to them.
Spontaneity had been on the cards since seeing their programme chalked on a blackboard at the entrance. These were musicians who intended to act on the spirit of the day, unconfined by a weeks-old printed schedule..
They launched into Haydn’s String Quartet in Eb, Op. 20, four bearded blokes with expressions of the greatest benevolence on their faces as the sweet, light phrases lifted from their instruments. There were music stands but they seemed to prefer playing with eyes closed, half-smiles of contentment at the perfection of Haydn’s music. The cello sung cleanly through the sweet-sour harmonies curling overhead, grounding their effervescence with crisp restraint.
Connecting glances were brief and intense. It suggested longterm familiarity linked with a readiness to react to the impulse of the moment. The first movement sparked spontaneous applause – shared joy too delightful to let pass without acknowledgement.
They leaned into the Adagio’s chromatic bending of harmonies so lovingly, all defenses were undermined… is there anyone alive who can resist the tenderness of this movement? The extension of their notes – velvety resonance that seemed to stroke, persuade… cajoled us out of whatever mood we’d been in when we arrived, into a state of dreamlike euphoria. It took a long pause to come back into our skins.
The Presto whirled us forward with captivating vigour. I thought Papa Haydn would have beamed to hear his work played with such passion and accuracy.
The outbreak of enthusiasm between movements suggested some in St James were fresh to classical tradition; it was satisfying evidence of this Quartet’s appeal in drawing in new, young audiences.
Part of their mould-breaking charm is the Maxwell’s parallel focus on Scottish folk music, garnering them a huge following at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. Their version of Captain Campbell’s March, originally for bagpipes, had the cello replicating the drone’s trance-like note while the violins and viola tweedled the piping melody above… it was convincingly atmospheric.
Their Worksongs project explores the folksongs and cultures of Scotland’s historic heritage, from weaving to jute-gathering, Celtic plainsong to mussel-picking. Ranging from sounds of the North Western Isles to a Canadian reel – ‘The Moose in the Gillies’ (hope I have that right!) – it was the music of an independent people, the voice of a hard-working community who knew well how to mourn and yet could inject joy into any free time they had.
The two Ceilidh dances showed that beautifully. The first, contemplative and sorrowful, bore a sense of stoic acceptance of a harsh way of life, the notes emerging and receding like the view through mist over moorland. This segued into a rhythmic dance, the shifting pace conveyed by the subtlest glance, lift of a chin to hold them in complete synchronicity. If there’d been room, our feet would have danced away with us.
After interval we observed a masterclass on how to write an epic work. Beethoven’s Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Op.131, turns the expected pattern on its head. This was clear from the Adagio first movement, introduced as ‘a world-weary fugue’. With the slow expressive expansion of the first theme, leaning towards us and then withdrawing, there built up a profound sense of a longstanding relationship, dense with shared references, little moments of recognition, almost welling over with the emotional burden of communicating the composer’s vision.
Listening to this it struck me that Beethoven was incapable of going any other way than his own, regardless of his reception. Listen or not…be affected or not… his works seem to require a pressure-valve, rather than an audience. Might it have been something to do with his deafness? It sounds so modern, so complete, an utterly private language.
As I watched the four onstage, I thought: this is why the best Classical music can never be called elitist. It does not require specialist training to interpret or understand, in the manner of some modern academic composers. Simple humanity will be called forth from somewhere more visceral than just the brain. This quartet comprises (I’d venture) four very different individuals, most strongly linked in that moment by total immersion in the magnificent mystery that is Beethoven.
The Allegro molto vivace that follows lifts us into a different world… almost a folk tune, blithe, lighthearted, it sweeps all reluctance before it in a flurry of gracious, breathless enthusiasm. The brief third movement seems to provide a bridge between this delicacy and the central fourth, a set of variations that engages like a series of conversations from different perspectives and individual voices. The two violins seem to be testing the water, proffering opinions, diverging and agreeing. There’s something almost experimentally brusque in the cello interventions, shaking us into paying full attention.
This seems even more pronounced in the Presto, which hurries us forward, then leaves us hanging, swoops into crescendos and then just – disappears! A conjuring trick which I think was intended to catch us unawares and make us laugh, as I suspect Ludwig must have as he conceived of it.
The sixth movement, Adagio, carries us sombrely over into the final Allegro sonata. Its muscular rhythm is urgently enforced by the cello, the spine that holds the limbs together when they seem to be trying to move in wildly different directions. And yet Beethoven brings all his voices together in the supremely civilized, lyrical lifeline, reeling all into alignment via imperceptible signals. This was ensemble playing of the highest order.
In the week before Schubert died, this was the work he specifically asked to hear. One of the musicians noted that ‘Schubert was so overcome with delight and enthusiasm… that we all feared for him’. I would like to think that he must have died happy. I certainly left St James walking on air.
For this, the latest in the Swallow Recital Series, heartfelt thanks again to the Swallow Trust. We all benefit hugely by its generosity in bringing world class music to the island, and so raise funds for young Guernsey musicians to pursue their training abroad.

Julia Meredith 2nd April 2024


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