Toronto summer festival

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.


A study in Nordic elegance

It was a Viking conquest at Chamberfest Wednesday night.

The 2015 festival is winding down, and organizers have saved one of the most anticipated appearances until the penultimate evening. The Danish String Quartet, which was making its Ottawa debut, is one of the most enthusiastically promoted groups to come out of Europe in the past decade. It would be too easy to dismiss the four young, blond, photogenic players as merely a classical marketer’s ploy, if they didn’t have the playing chops to back up the hype.

To an audience accustomed to the big, luscious, pumped-up sound favoured by many North American quartets, the Danes must seem like a revelation. The sound is refreshingly tart, flinty, lean but cutting as a North Sea breeze. The musicality is courtly, but never stiff or unenlightened, and there is a willingness to question received interpretations and traditions without being disrespectful.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1 was all worldly elegance, poise, and balletic lightness. The second movement displayed sincere, delicate emotion, without sentimentality. There was exceptionally fine, glowing playing by cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin and violist Asbjorn Norgaard. The only weakness — and one that kept popping up like a sticky guest throughout the evening — was first violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen’s tendency to play slightly under the pitch, particularly in the upper register.

When it comes to well-known Danish exports, composer Carl Nielsen is second probably only to Carlsberg beer. The DSQ was almost obligated to play one of Nielsen’s works especially in the 150th anniversary year of his birth. The composer’s String Quartet No. 1 received an affectionate embrace of a performance. The first movement brimmed with restless longing; the sun-flecked andante was played with touching tenderness and simplicity.

The rustic scherzo sounded like the echo of a country wedding dance floating across a meadow. The DSQ’s current project explores Scandinavian folk songs; they played an assortment of these tunes Wednesday night at St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts immediately after the Dominion-Chalmers concert. The group’s unusual ethno-musical approach brought Nielsen’s rural influences and inspirations to vivid life.

Alfred Schnittke’s tortured String Quartet No. 3 was the clear highlight of the evening. The quartet’s slender, astringent sound was especially effective at conveying the work’s oppressive feeling of dread — those glissandi in the first movement sounded like air raid sirens — and the dense, bleak harmonic writing came into seldom-heard sharp relief. The Roland de Lassus Renaissance motif that Schnittke quotes so liberally was played, usually by Sorensen and the serious, understated second violinist, Frederik Oland, with a ghostly, viol consort effect. The illumination was like a police search light coming through a stained-glass window.


One weekend, two quartets

…The Danish String Quartet, making its Maverick debut, gave us another memorable concert on Sunday afternoon. The program was drastically different from the Miró’s: Nielsen, Adès, and Shostakovich. I’ve never thought Nielsen’s string quartets are his best work, and the Quartet No. 1, in G Minor, Op. 13, is quite early Nielsen (age 24), written in an idiom closer to DvoÍák than to Nielsen’s glorious late symphonies. But it’s an entertaining piece, and the DSQ played it with lots of energy and obvious affection. I particularly liked the roughness of the Scherzo, which came out sounding like a Danish barn dance.

Adès was also very young (23) when he wrote his Arcadiana, Op. 12, a 20-minute suite of seven movements. From the first movement, we are introduced to the composer’s collage technique; it includes pictorial elements, slides, and microtones, and seems to change style as often as a traditional composer would change harmony. Tonality comes and goes in this work like a stranger trying to find the entrance to your house. Some chaos in the second movement reminded me of Ives, and later in the movement complexities sounded rather like Carter. I wouldn’t say this work is a masterpiece, but it certainly holds the attention, and I thought the composer saved his best for last, a movement (“Lethe”) which uses harmonics and slow sustained music to suggest the river of forgetfulness for which it is named. The performance seemed completely dedicated and the audience responded with great enthusiasm.

We’ve heard plenty of Shostakovich at Maverick over the years, but his String Quartet No. 9, Op. 117, isn’t one of the Greatest Hits. Perhaps it should be. In this extremely vivid, persuasive performance, it sounded like one of the composer’s masterworks, and maybe it is. Like Schubert, Shostakovich sometimes seems to be writing almost straight from the subconscious. The intensity of the writing and the performance in the last movement was truly frightening.

The interpretive personalities and styles of these two ensembles seem to me quite distinct and different. Yet the Miró Quartet had plenty of rough vigor when the music required it, and the Danish String Quartet could be quite smooth and lovely. It was a gratifying weekend of music.

Leslie Gerber


DSQ gives spirited festival performance

DENNIS – Call it the deconstruction of the fugue. Or rather the destruction of.

The Danish String Quartet called Monday’s performance at Dennis Union Church “The Art of the Fugue.” Perhaps for tradition’s sake – or perhaps to avoid scaring the patrons.

The concert, part of the ongoing Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, invoked the fugue from four disparate sources: Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Schnittke and Beethoven. Of the four, only Mendelssohn’s could possibly be called traditional. As for the rest – it was wild.

The quartet – Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, who alternate violin chairs; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello – formed in 2001 and has increased its stateside presence recently as resident artists in New York’s prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two program.

Performing here on the final stop of a summer tour, the foursome met the demanding music with boisterous energy. This wasn’t a dainty evening of frilly chamber music-making; this concert was loud and challenging.

The group opened with an un-capricious capriccio and a fugue from Mendelssohn, two movements of an unlinked set of four. The capriccio, Italian-flavored but slow-tempoed, was an appetizer; the fugue, a genteel taste of what followed.

Shostakovich has 15 quartets, none of which gets played enough. The ninth, in E-flat major, illustrates the inscrutable nature of the prolific Russian.

The five movements are linked by various solo gestures – a drone line in the viola, a quiet figure in the first violin. A shape-changing piece, with moods alternately alert then drowsy, fiery then pensive, it demands virtuosity.

The foursome was up for it. Early on, in the first movement and somewhat in the following adagio, opportunities for more articulate phrasing slipped by. But in a work that featured extended pizzicato, regular solos for each member, challenging unison playing (especially in the finale), and snippets of melody that get articulated, then abandoned for subsequent ideas, the quartet played with real musical insight.

The fugue in this quartet is more of an afterthought, its dramatic moments more prominently displayed in a reworked Russian folk melody that brings the piece nearly to a halt in the fourth movement, and another re-imagined idea, from the “William Tell Overture,” that comes and goes.

Alfred Schnittke felt the impact of his compatriot Shostakovich, as well as the impact of others. His work has multiple periods with distinct styles, including a late, mad foray into almost inaccessible ideas.

His Third Quartet comes from an earlier period (1983) of integration, when he blended and extended stolen musical treasures – “ghosts,” Nørgaard called them, during introductory remarks.

The ghosts in question here are Lassus, Beethoven and Shostakovich.

These three get quoted frequently, especially the insistent central idea from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. But Schnittke’s own voice makes this quartet a marvel. Clever glissandos, deeply explored counterpoint and melodies with unexpected harmonies make it unique.

The playing had confident assurance, just what a technically demanding work needs in order to make sense. Of particular note: one third-movement section, with tonality stretched past the breaking point, where each player was asked not only to hold the unusual pitches almost past tolerance, but to pluck fingerboard pizzicato at the same time – as if to repeat the strange sounding idea until we all understood it.

Schnittke’s musical references to Shostakovich and Beethoven folded this intelligently conceived program into a neat little package. To complete the wrapping, the quartet played Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, long a musical outlier, but in this demanding sequence of pieces, a natural conclusion.

A four-part fugue, with an overture and a coda that make it seem quasi-symphonic, the Grosse Fuge demands tremendous energy for its outlandish ideas. Following the introduction, the first theme, crazed and virtuosic, was played with abandon.

Such risk-taking causes breakdowns, and intonation in the violins was sometimes compromised. The vigorous approach also brought rewards: After that rough-hewn first foray, the following three thematic ideas sounded calm, complete. The previous musical challenges had created a context for the Grosse Fuge, making it sound (anachronistically) like a natural progression.

An encore was enthusiastically demanded, and played: The group honored Carl Nielsen, the favored composer of its homeland, with a simple four-voice chorale.


Ambitious program proves rewarding

DENNIS — Even among the large crop of superb youngish string quartets — those with between five and 15 years under their belts — the Danish String Quartet stands out. The foursome — violinists Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, violist Asbjorn Norgaard, cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjölin — boasts a confidence and command beyond the 15 years it’s been together. Having made its Boston debut in 2013 in the Celebrity Series of Boston Debut Series, it chose a riskier and more ambitious program for its visit to the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival on Monday, a concert that was as comprehensively rewarding as any chamber-music performance in recent memory.

The quartet’s dark, velvety sound was apparent in two of Mendelssohn’s Four Pieces for String Quartet (Op. 81), making them sound unusually tender. It also made the gentle opening of Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet into a comfortingly nostalgic dream. But when the music turned bitter and impassioned, the quartet’s sound quickly became more acerbic thanks to Oland’s slashing interjections from the second chair, a perfect foil to Sorensen’s mellower tone. (The two switch off in first chair.) The finale, a juggernaut that reaches hard-won victory only after ardent struggle, was electric.

Alfred Schnittke’s Third Quartet was the evening’s most impressive achievement, if only because of the music’s sheer strangeness. The piece is openly haunted by the past, as quotations from Lassus’s “Stabat Mater” and Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” collide with an unsettlingly dissonant vocabulary. The music seems too sinister for pastiche, challenging your conception of what the composer’s “real” style actually is.

The DSQ’s performance was impassioned, precise, and brilliant in ways both technical and conceptual. The “Grosse Fuge” itself followed, sounding even more avant-garde than it usually does with the memory of what Schnittke had made of it still fresh in the ears. The performance was notable not only for its exhilaration but also for the careful pacing and planning that went into it. Each segment of this highly sectionalized work seemed to bring something new and unexpected.

The demanding program was given a rapturous reception at Dennis Union Church, so the Quartet played a brief encore from its homeland: a Christmas-themed chorale by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It offered what nothing else on the program did: serene, untroubled beauty.

Do not lose track of this group: Even by today’s high standards, it offers something very special.

David Weininger