City of London Festival

City of London Festival – Danish String Quartet at Plaisterers’ Hall – Nielsen, Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, and Wood Works

One of the attractions of the City of London Festival is the opportunity to attend venues that are seldom used for live performance. One such is Plaisterers’ Hall, which paid host to the Danish String Quartet (three Danes and one Norwegian) from Copenhagen.

The programme opened with a rare hearing for Carl Nielsen’s Second String Quartet (1890). Unlike its G-minor predecessor (itself revived by the Nightingale Quartet at the Barbican Centre last month, albeit privately), this work largely leaves behind the outward influences of Brahms and Dvořák – finding an often personal synthesis such as underpins the abrasive contrasts of its opening Allegro, the sombre eloquence of its slow movement, the pert vitality of its Scherzo or the surging decisiveness of its closing Allegro – the whole piece being consummately well-realised by these musicians.

Hardly less impressive was the reading of Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ Quartet that followed. There was a teasing humour to the first movement’s introduction which segued deftly into a suave take on its main Allegro, and then the Adagio sounded more than usually Haydnesque in its easeful pathos. If the Scherzo might have evinced even greater impetus (though it is marked Allegretto), the hushed transition into the finale was intently rendered and the latter’s ‘theme and variations’ unfolded with due insouciance to an incisive and determined close.

After the interval, the Danish Quartet diverted and entertained with a sequence of transcriptions from Nordic folk-music under the overall title of Wood Works, a range of songs and dances from Denmark, Norway and Sweden – commencing with the bracing elegance of ‘Sønderho Bridal Trilogy’, and taking in such gems as the poetic ‘Waltz after Lasse in Lyby’ before a suitably uproarious close. All nine pieces are found on Dacapo 8.226081, required listening for its ingenuity and ready appeal.

This was an excellent recital by an ensemble whose UK appearances will hopefully become more frequent on the basis of this well-received event. The musicians returned for an arrangement of the chorale from the finale of Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, making a poised and affecting encore.

Richard Whitehouse


REVIEW: Danish String Quartet/CLF

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 2015


Glittering marvels

Sublime playing by three quartets, and poetic pianism by Melvyn Tan

The City of London Festival, now in its 53rd instalment, is less preoccupied with classical music than it used to be — it’s distinctly more populist — but this is still the main strand, and the opening event was a concert of rare quality. The engaging youngDanish String Quartet gave a programme in the glittery luxuriousness of the Plaisterers’ Hall that deftly combined the lofty and the demotic. In the first half, Quartet No 2 in F minor by Carl Nielsen — whose 150th anniversary is upon us — was followed by Beethoven’s E flat quartet, Op 74, nicknamed the “Harp”, while the second half was a stylish survey of Nordic folk music.

The Nielsen seldom appears in our concert halls, but proved a brilliant, dramatic work in the Beethovenian tradition, and was projected by these players with vividness and ardour. The Harp account, too, had terrific vitality and a fine precision; and their way with folk music was not dissimilar. They transformed raw materials from Denmark, the Faroes and Norway, in adroit arrangements with their own quartet-textural appeal. They demonstrated — as their violinist-presenter said they would — that rock’n’roll originated not in jazz, but in a tiny village in Norway. And they revealed to me, if unintentionally, how much of the phraseology and rhythm of a great Finnish, rather than Danish composer, Sibelius, stems from such sources.

Curiously (happily!) enough, the Harp was to be heard again a few days later, when the Borodin Quartet resumed the two-year Wigmore Hall double cycle of Beethoven’s and Shostakovich’s string quartets with which they are marking their 70th anniversary. It was clear to me at once that they could not invest it with the youthful spring-in-the-step of the Danish group, and there was something in the solemnity of the hall that made one miss the festive atmosphere of the City. Yet authentic youthfulness is about the only virtue to which this distinguished ensemble cannot lay claim. They have loomed grandly over the chamber-musical scene for decades (for years in residence at Aldeburgh), and attained a refinement of expression, an effortlessness of technique, an interpretative poise, to marvel at.

One certainly could at Wigmore Hall, where they offered a pair of programmes, two days apart. The readings of the two Shostakovich quartets — No 6 as the centrepiece of the first concert, No 3 taking up the first half of the second — had a dazzling authority doubtless informed by direct contact with the composer, and by which they moved between his insouciant classicism and emotional twistedness with utmost imperturbability, often, indeed, almost imperceptibly. This kind of double-speak was not without its uses in their Beethoven playing — notably for the F minor, Op 95 (“Serioso”) quartet’s finale, whose agitated falling-third figure burst forth with a paradoxical quality of classical containment yet tragic desolation.

Back to the City of London Festival, and the second main chamber-musical event: a recital in line with this year’s Singaporean theme by the pianist Melvyn Tan and the T’ang Quartet, both from that country, though the former long resident here. In the magically fresh, wood-panelled “shoebox” acoustics of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall, the T’angs gave a splendidly atmospheric and biting account of Janacek’s Quartet No 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”), a labyrinth of stark originality in which one could wonderfully lose oneself. With Tan, they played Dvorak’s ultra-melodic Piano Quintet in A, though here the listener’s art was rather to relish the relentless lyrical inspiration while not resenting too much the somewhat windy formal structures with which it coexists.

Yet the occasion had been transformed at its midpoint by Tan’s solo performance of Liszt’s Three Concert Etudes, S144. One wasn’t at all prepared for this modest manifestation of complete, devastating musicality. Virtuosity became poetry; phrasing became human breathing (not only in the third study, Un sospiro!); and the whole breadth of the keyboard (a modern Steinway, but lent a homely immediacy as of a period instrument) was constantly commanded as though a single handspan. It was pianism as stirring and illuminating as any I’ve heard.

Published 5 July 2015