The young players of the superb Danish String Quartet have been performing the four quartets by Denmark’s own Carl Nielsen ever since their student days. Yet these players had never performed all four on a single program until Thursday evening at the intimate Rose Studio, in a concert presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
It makes intuitive sense that artists from Denmark would play Nielsen’s scores so distinctively. Still, what exactly is “Danish” about Nielsen’s music? Even these players have trouble answering that question, a difficulty that came through in charming introductory comments from Asbjorn Norgaard, the ensemble’s violist, about the String Quartet No. 3 in E flat, completed in 1898.
Nielsen wrote this piece while temporarily separated from his wife. You can hear his turmoil, Mr. Norgaard said, in the expansive opening Allegro and the hymnal Andante, suffused with bittersweet lyricism. But in the last two movements, Mr. Norgaard observed, the mood changes, and the music turns almost goofy. Some people, he added, think that this is “a Danish thing,” to be “very deep and very superficial at the same time.” But, he added dryly, “we don’t know about that.”
What they do know is how to be an exceptional quartet, whatever repertorythey play. (The other members are the violinists Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and the cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin.) In this commanding account of the Third Quartet, the first movement sounded like music trying to be an exuberant late-Romantic Allegro, but roughed up by modernist jolts and sudden shifts. The slow movement unfolded with glowing sound and smoothness. The final two movements were slyly playful, especially the finale, a wild-eyed rustic dance.
What makes Nielsen’s quartets seem the work of someone Danish came through, for me, with the Quartet No. 2 in F minor (1890). Nielsen, 24 at the time, wrote the piece in Germany, where he had gone to study. Though the work hews to a traditional four-movement structure, the teeming music “jumps from one idea to the next, forgetting about the old one,” as Mr. Norgaard put it. Nielsen showed the piece to the great violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim, who praised it but suggested ways to make it less radical. The young Nielsen ignored him. Maybe that was something essentially Danish: to come from a place close enough to the centers of new music in Germany to learn something, but culturally removed enough to stick to your own instincts.
The String Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1887-88) already shows Nielsen searching for his own voice. The Quartet No. 4 in F (1906, later revised) is almost Neo-Classical in character. Yet just below its pleasing surface, the music abounds in quirky strangeness.
This rewarding program was the second installment in the society’s series of complete cycles of string quartets by five composers. Coming before the end of the season are Bartok, Ginastera and Leon Kirchner.
Link to reviewAnthony Tommasini