Maxwell Quartet - Haydn: String Quartets Op. 74 - Folk Music from Scotland - Fanfare

Back in 43:2, I was delighted by an album from a young ensemble calling itself the Maxwell Quartet. It was formally established in 2010 at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland by four friends who grew up playing classical and folk music together in youth orchestras and music schools across Scotland. According to its website, "The quartet has since held residencies at Oxford University, Perth Concert Hall, and many chamber music festivals across the UK, including their own festival, Loch Shiel in the west highlands of Scotland, and a new self-curated concert series at Guardswell Farm in Perthshire. The quartet currently holds the position of Associate Artist at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland in Glasgow, and at Music at Paxton Festival in the Scottish Borders." Many artists and ensembles new to record these days believe, and not without cause, that their very first album needs some novelty to catch the eye and pique the interest of the prospective buyer in an otherwise very crowded field. Some of the gimmicks turn out to be duds, but not the Maxwell's. The players' ploy for its first release, reviewed in 43:2, could not have been more improbable and, well, just plain perplexing: the first three of Haydn's so-called "Apponyi," String Quartets, published as op. 71, and inserted between them a succession of airs, melodies, reels, jigs, and show tunes from the Scottish fiddle and Gaelic folk traditions. The concept, at first glance, seemed completely hairbrained, but I have to admit that it did succeed in catching my eye and piquing my curiosity. The proof, as they say, however, is in the pudding, and it wasn't until I actually listened to the disc that what I initially thought was harebrained was, in fact, a brainstorm. The Scottish fiddle pieces, tuneful and tickling, turned out to be tasty side dishes to the entrees of Haydn quartets—palate cleansers, if you like—and no less enjoyable, really, than the main courses. So here, the Maxwell Quartet is back with its second installment to finish off Haydn's "Apponyi" Quartets—the second set of three published as op. 74—and once again to pair them up with more selections from the Scottish and Gaelic folk traditions. The pieces are thoroughly enjoyable—some brooding and poignant, such as the Marquis of Huntly and Miss Gordon of Gight (now there, surely, is the first line for a bawdy limerick), while others send kilts flapping, as in The Burning of the Piper's Hut, an old highland pipe march. Enjoyable as all of this is, it wouldn't be reason enough on its own to buy the disc if the Maxwell's Haydn wasn't up to snuff, especially since there are other recordings out there devoted in their entirety to programs of the Scottish fiddle and folk repertoire. But as I said in my previous review, the Maxwell Quartet's Haydn is my kind of Haydn. It's smartly and sharply executed, tongue-in-cheek droll, perky, playful, and puckish in the Allegros and Vivaces, archly coy in the Menuettos, and touching but not sentimental in the Andantes and Adagios. This is modern Haydn on modern instruments that's not self-consciously constrained by collegiate considerations of period practices, and the result is music-making that is alive, natural, and joyful. Readers who follow my reviews are apt to know that I've not found a lot to like in a number of recent Haydn string quartet releases. Mainly, I've found them to be either lacking in humor and spontaneity, or contriving humor and spontaneity in ways that play footloose and fancy-free with the written notes and are just as unnatural as the former to Haydn's spirited banter. The Maxwell Quartet avoids both pitfalls, finding just the right combination to the lock—the "four Ts" of technique, tempo, tone, and temperament—that open the door to the magic and miracle of Haydn's music. I hope this will not be the last we hear of the Maxwell Quartet and/or its Haydn. Strongly recommended.

15 June 2021