While the music for it is some of the most complex, sophisticated and difficult to write, there seems to be no shortage of string quartets. And while that doesn’t always equate with quality, it did last night with the Danish String Quartet performing as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Comprised of Danes Frederik Øland (violin), Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (violin), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola) and Norwegian Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (cello), the quartet performed a program of firsts, i.e. first string quartets penned by composers: Beethoven‘s “Quartet No. 1 in F Major”, Thomas Adès’s “Arcadiana” and Carl Nielson’s “Quartet No. 1 in G Minor”.
The playbill briefly described their history, with the three Danes having had their start as young boys and officially starting the quartet as teens, with Sjölin joining in 2008. This part is important because throughout the performance, the Danish String Quartet possessed an almost psychic unity rarely seen in other ensembles. Whether it was Øland or Sørensen leading the piece — they switched positions in the first and second halves — the other two musicians watched keenly for their cues and played as four extensions of the same body.
The quicker passages, such as in the Allegro con brio of the Beethoven or the Finale of the Nielson, were thrilling to listen to in terms of the quartet’s precision and attacking, it was the slower movements that really defined their skill as an ensemble. In particular, the second movement of the Beethoven, the Adagio affetuoso ed appassionata, displayed just how in control they were with both their bows and instruments. As the motif was passed around the circle, each musician drew out his respective notes with tenderness and care, with a careful eye on passing the baton to the next entrant.
In terms of pure enjoyability, the Danish String Quartet, who have made a name for themselves by heavily including Scandinavian music in their performing repertoire, really hit a home run with the Adès. It consisted of seven movements played without pause, and is an excellent example of what brilliant modern music can — and should — be. In the first and second movements (Venezia notturno and Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön, respectively), Adès wrote in notes that alternated between non-musical sounds, like pebbles dropping in water and the wind pulling sound out of the air. This composer is noted for his precision, technicality and deceptive complexity, and the four musicians made a bold and smart choice in including “Arcadiana” for their performance.
Happily, the night didn’t end with the Neilson, as the Danish String Quartet performing two wedding songs from their native land. And as with the previous three pieces, the four of them played with a remarkable clarity and maturity, taking time to fully explore each note and passage without rushing onto the next.The first wedding song involved a lot of contrapuntal playing, but there was an intuitiveness among the quartet that really shone through.
Never mind the “super string quartets” of today’s age, where section leaders of major orchestras band together and play on the strength of their names. No, the Danish String Quartet is in a different league altogether, and one that should be attended every time they’re in town.