Macho magicians of the Maxwell – by Julia Meredith
I could have filled this entire review with a list of their extraordinary accomplishments – from First Prize and Audience Prize winners of the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition, sellout performances at Wigmore Hall and Purcell Room, to accolades in the New York Times etc etc – but faced with four bearded blokes not unlike lumberjacks, the Maxwell Quartet’s most extraordinary feat seemed to be confounding stereotypes.
The word must have got out. After recent weeks’ disappointing audiences for some pretty special classical bookings, it was great to see St James buzzing: in fact, the start was delayed by 15 minutes to accommodate the queues at the Box Office.
No-one could doubt it was worth the wait. With the unrestrained glee of boys let out early from school, they flung themselves into Mozart’s Hunt Quartet (K458) – named after its hunting-call opening. It’s an exuberant work, and the impetuous verve of their attack could have gone awry in less able hands – but with great subtlety, each in their own distinctive way, the four wound the sweet-sour notes into an immaculate cat’s cradle of optimism.
Their individual characters shone out in the different movements. In the Adagio, a gift to the deeper registers, the cellist’s previous puckish inward grins were replaced by equally uncontrollable puckers of solemnity and emotion. He was the most visually expressive : but with eyes closed, each voice kept its intimate, passionate tone to persuade and beguile.
Come the Allegro, the hunting party was back, thrusting out after new scents, roguish glances and phrases exchanged as if flung hand to hand at full tilt, joyfully daring one another to drop the melody. I think we’d all caught their exhilaration by the close – and then they treated us to a footstomping detour into a traditional Scotch Border tune, Drunk at Night, Dry in the Morning. You felt Mozart would have approved this irreverent joke.
The mental agility required to switch centuries and styles – and feel so authentic in each – takes more than macho bravura. Debussy, ethereal, Romantic, sensual, by its enormous contrast really tested the Quartet’s versatility. Thanks to a user-friendly demonstration of the theme, we could identify the swoony melody soaring above piquant plucking in the Assez Vif – a calligraphic illustration of sound, swirling curlicues underpinned by a grid of spiky metronomic pulses – and dizzyingly, turned on its head at the finish. It was a dazzling performance, and as a friend mentioned during interval, ‘It was not just breathtaking – I was breathless’.
Death and the Maiden was written as Schubert believed (rightly) that he was dying. It expresses his need to leave a memorial, a private musical voicing of his anguished denial and poignant journey towards acceptance.
The immersion of each musician into the spirit of the piece made the concert feel extraordinarily intimate. Let it never be said men are less empathetic! No place here for them to hide. They lived the music in front of us, naked emotion washing over their faces. Tenderness manifested in velvety tones, prolonguing of an intensely beautiful phrase matched by the wince of exquisite pain … I felt like a voyeur, able to catch every sigh and inhalation. (At one stage the focused delicacy of the first violin suggested the sensitivity of a brain surgeon.) That immediacy matched with St James’s perfect acoustics was acknowledged by one quartet member’s off-the-cuff remark: ‘Fantastic venue, fantastic day – we’ve been blown away by the talent’.
I must close with heartfelt thanks from all of us in St James that night, to the charmingly anonymous but most generous benefactor, who donated £5000 that this remarkable evening could go ahead. Here’s hoping future Classical concerts of international calibre will not be dependent on charity, but on the appreciation of music-lovers throughout Guernsey.