Danish String Quartet rejects Beethoven stereotypes in Schubert Club concert

Portraits of Beethoven tend to show a rather gruff, forbidding individual, with no laugh lines etched into the face. And that stereotype too often influences performances of Beethoven’s music, presenting a humorless image of the composer shaking his fist at life.

A very different view of Beethoven emerged on Sunday afternoon, in the latest recital of the Schubert Club’s Music in the Park series. The artists were the Danish String Quartet, currently on tour in the U.S. They opened their concert with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 2, and it felt like a breath of spring air.

This is a young string quartet — the players are all in their early 30s — and you sense it in the blithe, unsullied optimism of their playing. The opening Allegro movement was delectably nimble in articulation, with an airiness of manner and a playful, witty reaction to Beethoven’s busy rhythms.

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was particularly prominent. His sweet, singing tone was a constant source of pleasure in the chirruping decorations Beethoven wrote for the first violinist. Sørensen was matched by his fellow players in a scampering, featherlight traversal of the Allegro molto finale, which sparkled with vivacity and joie de vivre.

Much of that elegance and lightness of touch carried over into the main challenge of the afternoon: Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 130, one of five quartets dating from late in Beethoven’s life, all masterpieces of the genre.

So many performances of this extraordinary composition seem ponderous and overly reverential. From the outset, though, the Danish players brought freshness and lucidity to bear with their flowing, purposeful account of the discursive opening movement.

In the famous “Cavatina,” the players again avoided lingering sentimentally, making the profundity of this beautiful music all the more obvious. Immaculate balancing between the four instruments seemed to cut the music loose from earthly cares and worries, to some higher region of philosophic contemplation.

For the finale, the Danish players opted for Beethoven’s first and vastly more difficult option: the immense, 15-minute “Grosse Fuge” his publisher persuaded him to replace with a shorter movement, because he thought audiences (and players) wouldn’t understand it.

The Danish String Quartet’s performance vindicated Beethoven’s original intentions. The fugal material was etched with sculptural clarity, without the overemphasis often resorted to in this already highly charged music.

Between the Beethoven pieces came the Third Quartet of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, which used themes from Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” and a vocal work by Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus.

The Danish players’ acute ear for texture and pin-sharp intonation drew evocative echo-chamber effects from Schnittke’s writing, as musical voices from the past spoke through the centuries to an anguished present.

It was an intense performance, but it was the Danish String Quartet’s life-enhancing, at times transcendent Beethoven that lingered longer in the memory.


Unanimous Outing for Danish Four

Today’s golden age of string quartets glisters more and more. It can hardly be the case that the Danish Quartet practices more, or harder, or somehow more effectively than other quartets today. But Saturday night at Jordan Hall in the Celebrity Series the group gave a performance of Beethoven and Alfred Schnittke with ensemble playing at an unobtrusively superhuman level.

From 1800, the 29-year-old Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 4 is the only one of that set which has some of his C-minor dark to it, not a lot, both at the start and then sporadically throughout, along with nifty syncopations. The Danes rendered the work utterly musically, relaxed and unanimous, in hair-trigger rhythm. Rare imperfect intonation did not need to be noticed. The young men, presenting as Brooklyn beard farmers in Norse hipster black—violinists Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Frederik Øland—give little energy to overshaping moments, to overdemarcation. My lapsed-cellist date declared their performance “absolutely effing perfect” but perhaps “a little too varnished, and unengaged”. I myself thought it altogether marvelous, albeit somewhat rounded, true, lacking, rightly or wrongly, in that articulated and usually oversized Haydnesque crispness familiar from other quartets’ (particularly American) early Beethoven.

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) music is an eclectic, referential postmodernism (Ted Libbey’s wording) in which everything could be used and parodied, even banal ideas, but with an urgency both serious and ironic. He wrote many dozens of film scores, and that facility shows everywhere in a post-Shostakovich, sometimes quasi-serial manner. His Quartet No. 3 opens with Orlando quoted in droning supplicative mode, followed by those (upcoming) Beethoven Grosse Fuge climbing intervals and eventual declaiming, and next much more poly-quote material, dramatically formed, not to say finely stewed: agitated perpetual motion, Soviet hoedown, Crumby insect swatting and swarming, tundral Ives, Dvorak hysterias and later Verklärte Nacht shrieks, humming Glassian chords, Vaughan Williams Tallis and then Górecki dronality, Grosse Fugue plucks, Russian Orthodox hymnody marching in half-steps, and back to Orlando supplication and changes wrought on D-S-C-H. The middle movement glimpses Classical formality in a sort of giddy crisis.

I found the Schnittke a stirring experience overall, and wish to hear it again. The Danish Quartet performed it so well, with such unstrained aplomb, that … well, was it a little on the pat side? In any event it was more elegant than the Kronos’s read. In fact, during halftime I began to wonder if the Danes’ almost unbelievable unanimity, actually achieving the hoary ideal of a single wideband instrument, ever worked against them. Like other European quartets they deploy with rounded attacks and rounded releases, anti-crisp, anti-big, generally muted as to dynamic range, no overpresentation, no overbiting, no over- anything. It’s breathtaking to hear, to mix physiology—but are they not sometimes a bit ungripped, and ungripping?

I wrote to a chamber-music colleague who knew their work well. I went on about their oneness and streamlined sound, their geniality, their polish, none of it in the bad senses. How they were so much both lighter in touch and x-raying than most. I felt similarly to my first time hearing the Yale or the Tokyo (or the Casals) Quartets. “That sounds like them,” came the response. “I admire them, vivid personalities, musically smart and vibrant. … Interesting to ponder this result of energy and quest for unanimity, and their sweet dispositions tinged with ‘don’t mess with me!’”.

Beethoven’s Opus 130 was one of those transcendent concertgoing moments. I have recently heard exalted, yet quite different, renditions by the Jupiter and Leipzig Quartets. This Danish one sang nobly, exactly, with deep interiority, as if we were overhearing, and except for a stray cough Jordan Hall was as quiet, dead quiet, as I have ever heard it. The playing was effortless, perhaps a shade unurgent, Beethoven’s deaf whispers and throbs momentarily muted. You could briefly register how luscious the sound was before realizing that that was beside the point. But the performance had unbroken drive, and the choked beklemmt music was fully anxious and straitened, costing the composer tears, it was reported at the time, and again in his recollections. And then that Big Fugue, recentering the heard weight, to end a composition (Michael Steinberg) “unrelieved in ferocious vigor, limitlessly bold in harmony”, [its pried-open moments still] “so startling that you could almost think you were dealing with a badly spliced recording.” Eventually “the four instruments then unite in strong octaves like those at the beginning of the Overtura, and from there Beethoven moves swiftly to the end. The resolution of these extraordinary, unprecedented conflicts posed is surprising and touching—a mixture of the exalted and the humorous that only Beethoven could have invented.”

The Danish String Quartet acquitted this strange, jarring work with a hair less vehemence and more musicality than the norm. The lost, falling-apart moments in the middle and before the end sounded more lost and fallen-apart than usual. They were secure-seeming even when not perfectly secure, so ensemble that even when they went off the road and hit the shoulder, losing sweetness (the first violin)—or in the Grosse Fuge sometimes it seems it’s Beethoven himself who’s responsible for the flailing—they did it together, every man, bobsled-style.

(TMI department: Halfway through the fugue my enthrallment was such that I drooled on my notes. Another first.)

Crewing teams speak of swing, and psychology books about groups describe what it means to be in the flow. Good musical quartets learn about such states. But in almost all ways, these guys are Viking masters. If you’re a chamber type, do not miss them

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

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