Skip to content

Scottish charm leaves Peak Music audience spellbound


The Maxwell Quartet performed their programme with finesse and sensitivity, with quartets from Haydn and Beethoven along with their own arrangements of some folk music of Scotland. Their playing showed excellence not only in their musicality but also in how they smilingly interacted with each other as each moved in or out of a part.

A programme mixing classical and folk music may seem the equivalent of chalk and cheese, but as Elliott Perks (the sole Englishman in the Maxwell Quartet) explained, both Haydn and Beethoven were very much influenced by the folk music of their day. The Hungarian violinists performing Haydn’s quartets at the Esterházy court were often gypsies who had come straight from playing energetically in taverns for imperial army recruitment drives, and Haydn’s scores would be enlivened with their own improvisations.

The last concert of our season began with the String Quartet in Eb major. Op 20, No 1. Haydn gives each musician an equal part and it certainly felt like ‘four rational people conversing’ as Johann von Goethe says about chamber music. The first movement, Allegro moderato, was thoughtfully played bringing a calmness to the hall as the audience listened to the sensitivity of the musicians. The second movement, Minuetto:Allegretto, was light and bouncy showing the coordination between the players. In the third movement, Affettuoso e sostenuto (tender and sustained), the audience could hear and feel in the hushed sound of longer bowing, a slow and sustained choral-like texture. This was then followed by the Finale:Presto which was bright and lively, bringing the Quartet to a superb finish and an audience more than satisfied. Few if any in the audience would have realised that the quartet were adding in their own improvised embellishments, just as the gypsies did in Haydn’s day, so sensitively was it accomplished.

The second set was Worksongs – Folk Music of Scotland. These start with violinist George Smith’s  encyclopedic knowledge of Scottish folk tunes, from which cellist Duncan Strachan produces skeletal scores. These are then workshopped by the whole quartet to produce the final polished rendition, though once again no two performances are identical as the quartet enjoy the edge of introducing an element of improvisation. Beginning with some ancient Celtic plain chant from the 13th century, the violins carried their theme with the viola joining them, followed by the cello providing a drone base. The sound from the cello and viola could be said to sound like bagpipes. This slowly but surely moved into Scottish folksong sounds, becoming more dance-like of a jog or reel. We could feel the melodies above the drone or bagpipes building, getting faster, and turning the rhythm into 3⁄4 time. The sense of rhythm grew and images of circle dances or ceilidhs came to mind. The applause afterwards showed appreciation for their style and sound and during the interval people commented on how they could feel themselves wanting to get up to dance!

After the interval the Maxwell Quartet played Beethoven’s String Quartet No 14 in C# minor, Op 131. Beethoven’s Late Quartets have a reputation for being difficult for the casual listener to engage with (one composer and violinist at the time described them as ‘indecipherable, uncorrected horrors’), but Op 131 is easier than most, and was considered by Beethoven to be his most perfect single work. Indeed, as Elliott told us, Schubert asked for it to be played for him five days before he died, and went into such paroxysms of joy that his friends feared his end would come there and then. Afterwards he exclaimed “After this, what is left for us to write?” This quartet doesn’t follow the usual four movements, but is played as a continuous piece in an unpredictable style from a traditional quartet, almost as if Beethoven was deliberately stretching the listener’s expectations. Mixing style and keys for the different movements keeps the piece both interesting and intriguing. After the opening fugue-like style first movement, the following movements flowed with hints of folk tunes over a drone, and interweaving sounds in the fourth movement’s variations moving between fast and slow. This was followed by the scherzo (Presto) which felt jokey and finished pianissimo sun ponticello, playing very close to the bridge producing the high notes quietly, before concluding with an Adagio and Allegro for a grand finish. With elements of surprise intermingled with the familiar, the Maxwell Quartet kept the audience attentive for the 45 continuous minutes of the Beethoven, with not a cough or shuffle to be heard.

The Maxwell Quartet create an elegant conversation between more traditional chamber music and their own compositions and newer works, conversing easily between serious and reflective styles with a few surprises for the listener. A splendid end to Peak Music’s 2023-24 season, leaving the audience replete.

Categorized: Uncategorized