Daring Danes Deliver

University of Chicago presents kicked off its 2014-15 season with a remarkable performance at Mandel Hall by the Danish String Quartet. Violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin were thrilling in performances of works by Haydn, Schubert and Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen.

They opened their concert with a riveting account of Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5. They had brisk tempos featuring long, lingering phases. The Menuetto had pleasing dark colors and the Adagio featured some very pretty work by first violinist Sørensen. The counterpoint in the final movement was expertly rendered as were the exciting dynamics.

Before Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s String Quartet No. 7, “The Extinguishable” (a little joke on Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony which bears the title “The Inextinguishable”), Nørgaard explained that the work had been written for them and that this was only the second performance of the new piece and the first performance outside Denmark. He said that Olesen “builds a prison for us” and suggested that while the work is both difficult to play and at times even to hear, that it offers many insights.

The quartet’s performance was clearly committed and they reveled in the score’s intense moments. The piece moves easily from periods with no tonal center to moments of traditional tonal melodies. The work was unusual and exciting containing a few moments of uncommon beauty as the four voices created a luminous sort of hum.

The concert concluded with a vigorous performance of Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major, D.887. The quartet brought tremendous energy and excitement with blooming phrases and crisp, perfect staccatos. They created well-drawn tension and had a remarkable unity throughout.

It was enough to make for a perfect night, but they added yet one more pleasure: their encore was a pretty little Danish wedding song in an attractive arrangement both modern and timeless.

M.L. Rantala


Fastidious playing..

The Danish String Quartet is now a dozen years old, and though its members are still boyish and gangly, the group is in full artistic flower. After its performance last year at the Library of Congress, I wrote: “It is a true four-way collaboration. The violinists trade off the first chair, and no personality dominates (at least in performance). The young artists are all very fine instrumentalists, and in matters of blend, intonation and technical dispatch, the group is certainly world-class.” On Wednesday at the Terrace Theater, it was, if anything, better; this is one of the best quartets before the public today.

The program, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was a bit conservative — Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich (No. 9) — but with playing on this level, it didn’t matter. While the Danish does not wring the last ounce of gutsiness out of the music and can sound a little sleepy at slow tempos, the clarity and musical detail of its performances are rare indeed. Also, the group would sound still richer if its violist had a larger instrument; the silvery timbre blends nicely with the violins, but the lower end of the quartet could use more heft.

Mendelssohn’s “Capriccio” encapsulated the group’s profile; in the introduction, the artists were a little too willing, perhaps, to make musical points by slowing down, but in the fiery fugue, the virtuosity of passagework and balancing of voices were simply stunning. If achieved at the expense of a true fortissimo, it was still a good trade.

The Shostakovich quartets require, first and foremost, perfect intonation. The composer’s long, droning passages can set the teeth on edge if anything is out of place, and here the Danish was particularly fine, everything lining up. Bow strokes were matched to the centimeter, and the entire thing was a tour de force of quartet discipline. The Danish Quartet did not bring the savagery that some Russian groups do to this music, but it was artistically valid.

Beethoven’s Op. 131 is the Everest of the literature, and no performance can capture everything. But here again, the scrupulous detail (one of the few renditions I’ve heard that made a real effort to execute Beethoven’s seemingly crazy dynamics), the unanimity of interpretation and the cleanliness of the ensemble were outstanding. While the opening fugue and the penultimate movement could have been a little less dirgelike, the imagination and impish interplay in the scherzo were delightful. It was a memorable performance, and while the season is young, this concert is likely to be one of its true highlights.

Robert Battey, Washington Post


DSQ opens season with intense premiere

The Danish String Quartet made a largely impressive Chicago debut with a nicely balanced program to open the University of Chicago Presents series Friday night at Mandel Hall.

The young chamber ensemble possesses a light, silvery sonority, one that proved eminently well suited to the opener, Haydn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, no. 5. The themes are superficially buoyant in this work, yet there is a prevailing sobriety of expression as the music is continually pulled into the minor.

The slender tone and slight astringency of the Danish Quartet’s sound added to the performance’s period feel, with a deft, gracious sensibility in the opening movement. The Adagio was particularly fine, with the drama manifest yet kept properly in scale, as first violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen wove graceful arabesques above his colleagues. The pianissimo dynamics were closely observed in the fugal finale, light off the bow, with the sudden jump to fortissimo making firm impact.

The Danish players brought a welcome bit of adventurous programming to Hyde Park Friday night with the String Quartet No. 7 of their compatriot Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen, a work being heard in its U.S. premiere.

The work is titled “The Extinguishable,” a mordant riff on Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (“The Inextinguishable”), reflecting the fact that both Olesen and the Danish Quartet won the Carl Nielsen Prize. But it also points to Olesen’s starkly differing life philosophy than that of their country’s most celebrated composer, as pointed out in the verbal introduction by violist Asbjørn Nørgaard (more user-friendly than Olesen’s rather impenetrable program note).

It was Carl Nielsen’s credo that “Music, like life, is inextinguishable”; yet for the more pessimistic Olesen, all temporal things have a short shelf life and both music and life are all too extinguishable.

The Danish composer’s Seventh Quartet, cast in a single movement of 23 minutes, has a manifest sense of raging at the fading light. The work is launched with a march-like two-note cello theme, a kind of fatum motif that recurs at key points in the music. The other instruments play quiet, unsettled high harmonics. As the cello motif grows more insistent, the other players segue into agitated fragments, conveying a violent sense of struggle against dark, implacable forces.

The malign theme returns as if quelled, and a innocent folk-like tune is played softly as if heard from a distance. A passage of crunched harmonics and edgy music ensues with the innocent theme emerging strange and distorted in portamento slides. The cello theme returns and the violins entwine around it in very high notes like ethereal sonic tenrdrills leading to a somewhat abrupt coda.

Olesen’s quartet is an intense ride and shows a confident and distinctive voice, though I feel the composer loses the thread somewhat in the final third of this work with too much repetition of his material. Still, this is difficult and demanding music to tackle and was played to the hilt by the Danish quartet members who were warmly applauded by the adventurous Mandel Hall audience.

Published posthumously after Schubert’s death, the Quartet in G major, D.887. made an apt closer after Olesen’s life-and-death musings. Schubert’s final essay in the genre is his largest at 45 minutes, and the Danish musicians were in synch with the late style in a well-paced performance.

Schubert’s lyric elegance was gracefully assayed and the major-minor contrasts of the opening movement and agitated tremolos of the ensuing Andante aptly jarring in impact. Still, the performance overall proved less polished and technically secure than in the preceding works, with repeated wayward intonation from violinist Sorensen.

An encore of the tuneful Sonderho Bridal Trilogy Part II from the Danish Quartet’s new CD of Scandinavian folk music made a fine apertif to a largely impressive evening of music by the personable young Danes.