As one of Scotland’s most celebrated string quartets, characterised for their commitment to collaborating with non-classical artists and other art forms, the Maxwell String Quartet were very welcome in Oxford.
Their appearance at the Holywell’s Sunday morning Coffee Concert was met with air of palpable excitement. Demonstrating their passion for expanding the string quartet repertoire, the Quartet’s choice of two works by Haydn and Tchaikovsky revealed both the composers in a new light.
Mike Wheeler’s excellent programme notes suggested that while Haydn’s early string quartets had been performed only to a select audiences of aristocrats and connoisseurs in Vienna, when Haydn visited London in 1792, the capital offered a much wider interface: the eight hundred seater Hanover Square Rooms where his work met with great success. Returning to Vienna, emboldened by his wider London popularity, Wheeler outlined how Haydn’s subsequent String Quartet in B flat Op 71 No 1 demonstrated a change in tone: a more confident, assured public manner.
This flamboyance well suited the Quartet’s verve and confidence. Each movement – from the arresting opening five fortissimo chords to the exuberant energy of the final Vivace, the Quartet played with wit and passion. Each note held conviction, and the first violin solo (Colin Scobie) honoured Haydn’s protégée Johann Peter Salomon’s virtuosity.
Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 1 in D, Op 11 is a departure from his better known orchestral works. However, his chamber music could equally move and delight: in December 1876 the author Leo Tolstoy attended a performance of the quartet, and was moved to tears.
‘Probably I was never so flattered in my life,’ Tchaikovsky recalled. The soaring folk music melody of the second movement, the andante cantabile which so moved Tolstoy was a key factor for its success, but the Maxwell Quartet’s energetic but precise rendition of the whole had the audience stamping their feet, and applauding not one but multiple encores.