Boyish Danish String Quartet all business on stage

Reviews
11 November 2015 / Calgary Herald

Boyish Danish String Quartet all business on stage

Music for the string quartet constitutes the musical centre of any organization, like the Calgary Pro Musica Society, whose mission is to bring to its audience the best in chamber music. And it is only natural for there to be a constant look out for the next hot property.

A year ago, fresh from its win in the Banff International String Quartet composition the Dover Quartet wowed the audience and jury, going on to increasing fame and fortune. But in the twinkling of an eye things can change, and the already crowded world of fine young string quartets will have to squeeze a little tighter to include (for North America, at least) a newcomer: The Danish String Quartet.

Boyishly tousled, and sporting Justin Trudeau’s concept of hair, the quartet is all business when it is on stage, its performance persona as sensitively inward and reflective as the Dover Quartet is North American in its extroverted approach. Most of the music in this concert was of the kind that makes its musical points when performed with ultra refinement, pliancy of phrasing and tone, and a sense of reflection. In music of this type, the Danish Quartet has no peer.

This was evident from the outset in the wonderfully crafted account of Haydn’s rarely heard String Quartet in C major, Op. 54, No. 2, one of the composer’s most quirky works, and with more than the usual amount of slow, lyrical music. The performance was a lesson in how to penetrate into Haydn’s unique musical world, filled with articulated musical classic-period grammar and humour. The balance and good taste in projecting these musical values was on full display here, the humanity of Haydn’s music coming through at all times. This was especially notable in the unique slow movement and in the quirky finale, both of which emerged as special and crafted with real individuality. The syntax of Classic period music, so difficult to find in performances these days, was the strongest side of this performance, making The Danish String Quartet one of the current masters of this style of music.

The concert included Thomas Ades first string quartet, entitled Arcadiana. As the quartet mentioned from the stage, Ades is a hot property today, his operatic works and many other pieces regularly performed and sought-after by performing groups. This earlier work was attractive and was certainly well performed, particularly in the O Albion movement that has already found a niche among music lovers. Overall, the quartet is clearly the work of a highly capable composer, even if the titles of the movement appeared to be more a composer’s conceit than of particular use to a listener. Mostly abstract and spare, the individual movements drew imaginatively conceived sounds and textures from the members of the quartet, the piece emerging as a series of miniature musical poems in a modernist style. Presented with evident understanding and commitment, the work provided an excellent contrast to the Haydn, if proving a bit challenging for the audience.

The final work on the concert was Beethoven’s final string quartet (Op. 135), which, like the opening work, found the players in excellent form. More lyrical than dramatic, this quartet, with its strikingly beautiful slow movement, was the perfect vehicle to showcase what the Danish Quartet does so exceptionally well — perfect balance within the individuality of the players, and with the emphasis upon lyricism.  But there was energy and good humour here as well as, including a fine projection of Beethoven’s wry wit in the final movement.

It its conception of quartet performance the Danish Quartet stands slightly to the side of what North American audiences normally encounter. They have the courage to play to the centre of the music, trusting that the audience will follow if this centre is strongly and clearly articulated — and this it most certainly is. The opposite of the notion of “playing to the audience,” this approach offers its own special internal world, giving the Danish Quartet its individual performing voice in a world frequently notable only for its efficiency. It was a concert to treasure.

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Kenneth Delong