Kate Molleson

COMPETITION results are like a mass placebo effect. There is no qualitative difference in the sound of Glasgow’s Maxwell Quartet – no change in musicianship, technique, personnel, ethos, anything – since they were awarded first prize and audience prize at the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition in September. And yet, says the quartet’s cellist Duncan Strachan, vaguely bemused, “it’s only now that everyone is taking notice.”

If there’s an edge to that comment, a disappointment that many in the music industry rely on competition results rather than their own ears, it’s more than tempered by the welcome attention the group is receiving. The win brings with it concert tours in Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, possibly the US and Canada. There’s talk of a record deal and a debut album. The Herald has been hounding them for an interview.

This is exactly the kind of break that justified going through the whole competition ordeal. “It was starting to feel a bit impossible,” says George Smith, the group’s soft-spoken second violinist. “Working away for so little money. Not seeing much of a way forward in the longterm. None of us really like doing competitions at all, but it’s how to get noticed in the industry. To be fair,” he adds, “Trondheim is a particularly friendly example, but not all competitions are like that. During one of the first ones we did we invited the other competitors back to our Airbnb for a drink after the first round. Most of them didn’t come! You see a lot of young quartets…” he trails off, seeming reluctant to criticise his peers. “They’re often very focused,” Strachan offers. “Very, um… driven.”

The Maxwells don’t lack drive, but they are a notably unpushy bunch. Smith and Strachan met as students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and now live in adjacent flats in the west end of Glasgow. They’ve got a gentle way of interacting; they say they almost never have disputes within the group. Various other members have come and gone, but the lineup has now settled to include violist Elliott Perks and, as leader, violinist Colin Scobie. “The timing was perfect when we called Colin because he had just left the Fitzwilliam Quartet and was keen to get out of London and come back to Scotland,” Smith recalls. “He came up for one session and we sight read some Mozart and Thomas Ades. That was it. The next day we rang him and asked him if he’d join.”

When I remark on the quartet’s gender ratio (all guys? 2017?) Smith and Strachan both look slightly embarrassed. They mumble various defences – it’s not deliberate! We love working with women! It’s so difficult if you’re going out with someone within the quartet! – then give up. “Och, we do get asked about it a fair bit,” says Strachan. “People crack jokes about us being four lads on tour… but, I mean, look at us! We are really, really not very laddish.”

The original quartet was thrown together at random by chamber music tutors at the RCS, but since then its members have navigated their own course. “I felt the biggest achievement in Trondheim when the head of the competition came to congratulate us,” says Strachan. “She was really happy that we had won and said she thought of us as the ‘wild card’. Typically the groups in these competitions are associated with an institution or some fellowship with some leading quartet. We’ve never had any of that.” He looks at Smith. “That’s when I thought, ‘actually, gawd, we’ve done all this on our own!’”

There was, however one organisation that has been crucial in the quartet’s development. Instead of an institution or a fellowship, it was the charity Enterprise Music Scotland that offered the Maxwells the right support at the right moment. “If it hadn’t been for EMS we would not have kept going,” Strachan emphasises. “I’m sure of that. They gave us a two-year residency really early on that meant we could play a whole lot of concerts around the music societies of Scotland. We were probably pretty rubbish during a lot of that, but it was our training ground. One of the first things we did after Trondheim was to write to EMS and all the music societies to say thanks for believing in us before we’d won any posh competition. They gave us our chance.”

What was it that made the Maxwells stand out in Trondheim? All the other finalists played the same Beethoven quartet (Opus 59 no 2) whereas the Scots, who closed the competition, played the first of Beethoven’s late quartets (Opus 127). “It’s the same piece we played at our Wigmore Hall debut,” Smith explains, “and we laughed because we realised we had chosen literally the hardest Beethoven. It’s so tender and lyrical. It’s never black and white. It needs so much finesse and vulnerability. It feels like a real emotional struggle throughout.” He pauses. “Which is probably why we love it.”

I suspect the Maxwell’s success had something to do with that willingness to sound vulnerable. They say it’s linked to their background in folk music – they all grew up playing traditional Scottish as well as classical music, and, says Strachan, “that is key to our identity. We love playing Haydn, and his music will undoubtedly be a focus for us, but I think the reason for that is absolutely rooted in folk music. We try to apply that mentality to everything we play. It’s about acknowledging the dance forms or songs at the heart of classical music.”

“It’s a mentality thing,” Smith adds. “It changes the way you use a bow, it changes the way you sing a phrase. Not trying to affect the music too much. Just playing it as written, as naturally as possible. That’s how we want to approach Haydn. Hopefully that’s what makes us a bit different. I mean, I don’t want to dismiss how other quartets play Haydn… But I do think people sometimes overcomplicate his music and lose the vitality.”

Do they see themselves as Scotland’s answer to the Danish String Quartet? That’s another young all-male foursome who play arrangements of folk tunes alongside crystalline interpretations of Haydn and Ades. Smith and Strachan nod enthusiastically, happy to acknowledge the influence, but are note that they’re wary of the glossiness that often kills classical string arrangements of folk material. How to avoid that? Smith says he keeps coming back to the aesthetic of old pipe music. “The simpler the better,” he says. “I love the drones. As soon as you start adding all that rhythmic chopping and lush harmonic stuff… it sets alarm bells ringing. It kind of ruins the beauty of the line. We don’t want anything to sound cheesy or shortbread-tinny.”

I’m glad they said it. “We talk a lot about music not having to sound beautiful all the time,” Strachan stresses. “‘Bulletproof’ is a word we use a lot – as a negative. Bulletproof is boring. We want to allow for fragility. Isn’t that where things get interesting?”

The Maxwell Quartet perform at Renfield St Steven’s Parish Church, Glasgow, on Saturday, to mark the 10th anniversary of the EMS Residency Project (http://www.enterprisemusicscotland.com/) and on 4 December at Perth Concert Hall