Plaisterers’ Hall, London, 22 June 2015
With the big bang that launches his F minor String Quartet Op.5, Nielsen seems to say: Here I am, ready to face the great tradition head on. In this City of London Festival performance, the Danish String Quartet created an explosion that radiated after-shocks through the rest of the movement, where other ensembles have created a slower-burning surge.
This is not to say that the DSQ were unconsidered or impulsive: absolute unanimity of tone and gesture were defining characteristics of the concert as a whole. In the simple octave-unison song which opens the slow movement of Op.5 it was impossible to tell one player from another, and indeed almost unsettling to hear two violins make the sound of one super-violin. Their approach was as Classically tight yet fermenting with contained violence as Nielsen’s approach to the ghostly giants of the tradition such as Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. Shadow-blows were traded and evaded in the excursions from tonal convention in the third-movement minuet, and Nielsen keeps his signature moments of bitonality under wraps, only unleashing it now and again (in, say, a Trio of quietly rude vernacular harmony standing in the middle of the Scherzo’s good-humoured party) to jab at our expectation of good manners in the outer movements.
Leader Frederik Øland introduced Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ Quartet Op.74 as ‘a piece that contains everything’, contemporaneous with the Fifth Symphony, but its first-movement’s outpouring of joy has more in common with the Seventh Symphony, as does its well-oiled rhythmic engine, which had been no less carefully tuned than the Nielsen. Tragedy was more hinted at than explored in the sweetly modulated slow movement and even the vicious momentum of the third movement’s Presto lacked the bass weight usually associated with Beethoven in furioso mode. Like a well-organised band of Viking raiders, they travel light, move fast and always have their next target in their sights. Violist Asbjørn Nørgaard’s solo in the finale’s variation set was unfailingly suave, and perhaps this is a work designed to unsettle the listener through rather than in spite of its impeccable construction and Haydnesque concluding shrug.
If a sense of spontaneity was also wanting to a second-half selection of arrangements from their ‘Wood Works’ album on Da Capo, that may as much be due to the gilded surroundings of the Plaisterers’ Hall as a reluctance to push the envelope in performance. What on record is a bracing renewal of Nordic folk musics, often wild and abrasive as the occasion demands, came over as a very upmarket sort of wedding band. The quartet arrangements are sensitively done, letting the tunes sing for themselves, only from time to time coating them in cinematically spun sugar. The opening sequence of music to accompany a Faroese wedding was surprisingly introvert – like Elsa and Lohengrin in the third act of Wagner’s opera, wondering what will happen next – and a slow, sad Danish waltz describes the lonely work of an itinerant fiddler. They finished their set with the exhilarating if slightly contrived rumpus of a Norwegian dance like a better-behaved cousin of the Kronos doing Purple Haze. Vikings they may be but Jimi can sleep easy.
Published 1 July 2015Peter Quantrill