A Quartet Sets a New Standard for Beethoven Marathons

The Danish String Quartet presented the composer’s complete quartets over six extraordinary concerts at Alice Tully Hall.

Almost 15 years ago, the men of the Danish String Quartet — they were in their 20s, at the time, and still called themselves the “Young” Danish — said in an interviw that they would need to become more mature before daring to play Beethoven’s late string quartets in public.

It didn’t take that long for these prodigiously gifted musicians to get over their youthful reticence. In 2014, for their first Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performance at Alice Tully Hall, they ended a program with an urgent, yet cogent, spacious and mystical account of the Quartet in A minor (Op. 132). And they were back there this month for a series of six concerts, again presented by the society, devoted to all 16 of Beethoven´s quartets performed in chronological order.

Over the years, the Danish quartet has played these pieces individually. But this is only the second time they attempted a daunting complete cycle — about nine hours of music. Tully was packed for all six programs, which opened on Feb. 7 and concluded on Tuesday. This year, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, is going to offer lots of complete cycles. It’s always difficult to bring fresh takes to pervasively familiar repertory, but the standard set by this quartet will be especially hard to top.

As a rule, I’m not keen on complete Beethoven cycles, precisely because these scores remain such fixtures of our musical lives. I prefer programs that take on Beethoven by juxtaposing his pieces with works by other composers. That’s the approach the Danish quartet took in two recent recordings on the ECM label, “Prism I” and “Prism II,” which place two late Beethoven quartets in context with Bach fugues and 20th-century quartets by Shostakovich and Schnittke.

But perhaps Beethoven’s string quartets could benefit from being heard complete if they’re in order, spanning the composer’s career. And how many opportunities do we get to hear, say, the “Serioso” Quartet?

Or, for that matter, the six early quartets published together as Op. 18. For all the command these probing musicians demonstrated in their riveting accounts of the late quartets, their excellence came through most in bracing performances of the early works.

Beethoven modeled those Op. 18 quartets on Haydn — his teacher, who essentially invented the genre of string quartet. Here Beethoven was honoring him by writing works within the protocols of form and style that Haydn had developed. But there is an element of one-upmanship at play. Beethoven is taking on the master, showing what, in a sense, a “Haydn” quartet could really be.

There was some of that impish quality in the Danish quartet’s playing, despite its elegance and brilliance. From the first phrase of the opening work, the Quartet in D (Op. 18, No. 3), the blissfully lyrical violin melody, soaring over seemingly supportive harmonies in the other strings, sounded cozy and alluring, but just a touch sly. Sure enough, before long an episode of spiraling passages in triples seemed like a warning for us to listen below the sunny surface.

It’s difficult to explain what makes the Danish String Quartet’s playing so special. Other ensembles arguably match these players in technical excellence and interpretive insight. To say that their performances represent a marvelous balancing of qualities suggests that they occupy some place in the middle of the road. The results are anything but: There is a winning mix of studied concentration and willful freedom in their playing. “All Scandinavians feel like they have a bit of an anarchist inside them,” Asbjorn Norgaard, the group’s violist, said in a 2016 interview That came through during this entire series.

Their technical command resulted in precise execution. Yet they played with enough leeway to allow instinctive responses to take over in the moment. You might assume that musicians in their 30s would bring youthful energy to bear, but I was struck by how often they opted for a raptly restrained tempo. Rhythms were dispatched with clarity and exactitude, without a trace of rigidity.

They have a shared sensibility and richly blended sound. But that doesn’t stop their individual musical characters from continuously shining through. (The members, besides Mr. Norgaard, are Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, who trade playing first and second violin parts, and Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin, a Norwegian cellist who has been with the ensemble since 2008.)

The big endurance test of the cycle was the third program, in which they played the three “Razumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59), from 1806. Here is the towering Beethoven, the composer as revolutionary, striding across the pages of these scores — brash, adventurous and ingenious. I found the performance here of the middle one, in E minor, especially distinguished. The Danish quartet brought out both the brooding weightiness and near-crazed intensity of the music. The ebullient third, in C, ends with a quasi-fugue finale, a breathlessly fast tour de force with streams of rapid-fire notes. For an encore, they repeated the final large section of that movement. And, with nothing to prove, they played with an extra dose of daring.

It’s hard to single out movements, or even moments, from the ensemble’s accounts of the late quartets. I loved how they began the Quartet No. 12 in E-flat (Op. 127), which opens with what seems a fanfare, in thick chords, that soon spins off into a genial exploration of a winding theme. The Danish quartet underlined this passage with grit and urgency that sent a signal: A gate to a new path had been opened.

They ended the Quartet No. 13 in B-flat (Op. 130) with the original finale, the Grosse Fuge, not the benign substitute Beethoven replaced it with at the urging of his publisher. That section still comes across like the fugue to end all fugues, with outbursts of sputtering rhythms, obsessively hammered attacks and tangles of wayward counterpoint. As played here it sounded audacious, extreme and, finally, exhilarating.

The players showed imagination in closing programs with short encores, including a harmonically juiced-up arrangement of Beethoven’s popular piano piece “Für Elise” and, on Valentine’s Day, “My Funny Valentine.” But after the series ended on Tuesday with the Quartet in F (Op. 135), they returned to the stage without their instruments, joined arms shoulder-to-shoulder and smiled to the cheering audience. They gave Beethoven the last word. Which was right.

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Why I’d Rather Hear the Danish String Quartet Than Any Other Foursome

Midway along the Danish String Quartet’s journey through Beethoven’s life, the players led the audience into a dark wood. The ninth quartet (Op. 59, No. 3) opens in dissonant despair, each crushing chord dropping inexorably onto the next. Then, in a classic feint, the apparently endless slough suddenly opens into a bright C major clearing. When the Danes pivoted from gorgeous misery to a blithe dance, you could practically hear the audience in Alice Tully Hall gasp in relief. The players, who look like lanky Vikings, all long limbs and blond hair, delivered each phrase as an utterance that had just sprung to mind. They seemed genuinely curious to know what came next, to keep up with the composer’s mercurial thoughts.

Performing the complete Beethoven quartets in 11 days is a maven’s mountain. This series, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, is packed with listeners who can compare and contrast these performances with those of the Juilliard, Tokyo, Berg, and Emerson Quartets. The Danes seemed unfazed by all the reverence.

The group is performing the quartets in the order they were written, tracing a fitful arc from upstart to master. In the first concert, they brought out an aspect of Beethoven that often gets short shrift: his charm. He was a phenomenal pianist and an experienced composer in the late 1790s, when he wrote his first quartets, Op. 18, but he was also a young man in his twenties, eager to seduce patrons and the amateur string players he depended on to buy his published scores.

The genre had a mild history before Beethoven, rooted in background music. A string quartet should “not disturb a wine-drinking emperor too much,” as the group put it in a program note. But even in these first pieces, Beethoven is already willing to disturb the digestion. The very first quartet he published (though not the first he wrote), The F Major quartet, Op. 18, No. 1, begins with a Zorro-like gesture: all four instruments fuse on a long F lunge, followed by a staccato flourish, like a foil writing a Z in the air. The Danes made that gesture more mischievous than menacing, the calling card of a witty composer brandishing his virtuosity. Somehow, they made it possible to experience this young man’s music afresh, to block out the Olympian figure Beethoven became and unhear the lightning storms that snap through his later music.

A few days later, the ensemble reached 1806, when Beethoven published his “Razumovsky” quartets, Op. 69. He had reached his self-mythologizing years, secure in the knowledge that whatever insanity he could dream up could be packed into a traditional genre and made to work. There are intimations of danger in these works, a kind of manic cackle that will eventually turn explosive and bleak. But even here, the Danes remembered that what they do for a living is “play.”

I’ve been following this extraordinary group for years, but I really understood their mojo only after I met them all in their basement studio at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. The group’s three Danish players — violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard — first got together as teenagers at the Askov Folk High School in Jutland. (The fourth, cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, grew up in Norway.) Founded in the 19th century to educate farmers during the enforced idleness of winter, these institutions have evolved into a network of specialized but laid-back summer programs.

“You don’t go there to achieve, but to develop for the sake of developing. It’s more of a society of amateur musicians,” says Øland. Nørgaard chimes in: “You’d be having breakfast, and someone would tap you on the shoulder and say, Can you come and play eight or ten string quartets with us?We were always the last guys standing.”

Those late-night summer sight-reading sessions spilled over into weekends during the school year, and companionship matured into professionalism. Chamber music came naturally to hotshot musicians accustomed to channeling ambitions into a collective endeavor. Sørensen mentions the Law of Jante, a pan-Scandinavian prohibition against sticking out.

“Maybe that’s why Denmark doesn’t have so many concerto soloists,” he says.

“In an orchestra it’s always like: You be the concertmasterNo, you be the concertmaster,” Nørgaard jokes.

The players are analytical about their Danishness, which, they feel, has freed them from the weight of, say, Russian, Hungarian, or Viennese performing legacies. (“Norway has an even weaker musical culture, made up mostly of people who went abroad and brought back different traditions,” Sjölin says.) At one point, they tried on one of those heavy mantles, attaching themselves to the violinist Nikolaj Znaider, who was trained in the Russian style. He inculcated in them an obsessional attitude towards detail, an interpretive rigor expressed by a penciled annotation on every note.

That Jedi-like training ran headlong into their irreverence. “Denmark is a flat country, literally and also in our attitude towards authority,” Nørgaard says. “That also applies to how you treat the classics. You have the right to question the composers. After all, they were just guys who wrote some good music.” Adds Sørensen,“We’re basically a cover band.”

It’s an attitude that translates directly into their music-making. For a dozen years, the quartet has organized its own October festival in a tiny hall in Copenhagen. For a long time, they did everything themselves: distributed free tickets, designed posters, trolled antique shops for stage props, set up chairs, and even poured the beer. The pieces of a cardboard-and-plywood bar they built for the occasion sit jammed into a corner of their studio. In recent years, they roped in guest performers and launched a four-concert series in a bigger hall, with programs that are more eclectic than cogent. “We grew up post-vinyl, so we don’t always think a program has to be like an album. We do Spotify concerts,” Nørgaard says.

Their actual albums, on the other hand, are distinctly albumlike. Last fall, they released the second volume of their projected five-disc Prism series, which matches music by Bach and Beethoven with a 20th-century composer (first Shostakovich, then Schnittke). After long immersion in Denmark’s national composer Carl Nielsen, the quartet discovered the country’s hymns and dance tunes, which eventually flowered into two ravishing albums of Nordic melodies: Wood Works and Last Leaf.

If I linger on their background, it’s because that mixture of casualness and control comes out when they perform; it makes them the quartet I would most want to hear play just about anything. Chords all have a diamond edge, tunes pour like molten silver, staccato passages skip like stones across a lake. But too often, musicians who command that level of technical precision bundle it with a premeditated interpretation, in which every phrase is weighed, chiseled, and inserted in its proper slot. Maybe that’s how the Danes work too, but the effect is convincingly spontaneous. They understand the explosive power of an impromptu nuance, the way a hairsbreadth rubato can make the clouds part.

The midpoint concert ended with the final fugue of the C Major quartet (Op. 59, No. 3), executed at fighter jet speeds with an astounding mixture of nonchalance and intensity. The separate strands unspooled, overlapped, and intertwined, the notes slipping through their fingers like tiny knots, so that it seemed like the whole thing would have to end in an exhilarating tangle on the floor. When they were done, the audience jumped with the thrill of having witnessed such a thing. And so the group sat down and played the movement again as an encore, as if to say: We could do this all night. We’re still the last guys standing.

The Danish String Quartet will perform the remaining Beethoven quartets in its series from February 13 through 18 at Alice Tully Hall.

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Wonderful equilibrium: Danish String Quartet performs Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets


Four years ago, when The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the full cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, multiple ensembles, spanning several generations, were invited to perform. In this Beethoven anniversary year, the honor has been bestowed on just one: the Danish String Quartet, unanimously considered among the most distinguished young group of string players active today. Performing together as a quartet since 2008, these instrumentalists, all of them still in their 30s, have today both the necessary experience and the enthusiasm to tackle such a nonpareil task.

The third performance of the series was devoted to the Op.59 quartets, the so-called “Razumovsky”, after the Russian ambassador to Vienna who commissioned the works. Beethoven includes Russian sounding themes in the first quartet’s finale and in the second one’s Trio – played here with evident gusto by an ensemble that many a times dots its programs with adapted folk tunes.

Overall, the Scandinavians’ performance kept a wonderful equilibrium between color and structure, humor and tragic sentiment, self-confidence and doubt. The interpreters underlined the music’s symphonic character while letting their individual voices shine. They didn’t overemphasize, at any point, the scores’ Romanticism (as they could have, for example, in the F major’s Adagio molto e mestowith its full of anguish aria). On the contrary, they brought to the front of their interpretation references to Haydn and Mozart’s Classicism, even if Beethoven’s 1806 music is much more in its own realm than the previous quartets, the Op.18, were. As much as the Op. 59 quartets are viewed by some as a single statement in twelve parts, the evening’s performers made sure to bring forward each work’s individuality: the song invoking melodies of the first, the enigmatic character of the second, the youthful exuberance imbuing many of the musical phrases of the C major.

The quartet appeared to act so much as a single organism – in terms of the overall sound and in “passing the baton” from one instrumentalist to the next – that it really didn’t matter that the two violinists alternatively took the first chair, a practise the members of the Danish String Quartet probably adopted from one of their mentors, the Emersons. (For the record, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was the first violinist in the F major and the C major quartets while Frederik Øland played the role in the E minor).

In a performance with just a few minuses – occasionally, the tuning was uncertain – there were many treasurable moments, from the first bars of the Op.59 no.1, with cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin enouncing the dolce first theme, to the ebullient Finale of Op.59 no.3 (repeated as an encore). The contrast between the backwards-looking Menuetto and the experimental Andante con motto that precedes it in Op.59 no.3, the tension associated with the brief moments of silence and the wondrous tonality shifts, the unbridled energy in the F major’s Allegretto were truly remarkable.

In their latest multi-album recording project named “Prism”, the Danish String Quartet juxtaposes Bach fugues, late Beethoven quartets and more recent compositions, wishing to underline how Beethoven’s quartets play a prismatic role – diffracting a beam of light coming from Bach into multiple, more modern styles. On Tuesday night they convincingly demonstrated how much the Razumovsky Quartets are themselves a “prism”, a focal node within the Beethovenian canon.

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