One Night, Several String Quartet Premieres

The JACK Quartet and the Danish String Quartet presented new works that nodded to the past and spoke to the present.

On Thursday evening, two eminent string quartets presented premieres in New York. At Merkin Hall, the JACK Quartet unveiled Patricia Alessandrini’s “A Complete History of Music (Volume 1),” Khyam Allami’s “Ma-a a-ba ud me-na-gin Ma-a di-di-in”and George Lewis’s “String Quartet 4.5.” Not far away, at Zankel Hall, the Danish String Quartet paired Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” with Lotta Wennäkoski’s new “Pige.” Our critics were at both events.

JACK Quartet

You always remember your first.

The first live concert you attended after the initial pandemic lockdown, that is. So the JACK Quartet will always hold a place in my heart. But after that outdoor performance, at the Morris Museum in New Jersey in August 2020, it was back to a long digital-streaming relationship for me and the group. So seeing them in person again on Thursday evening, almost two years later, felt like another of this era’s many happy reunions.

Appearing at Merkin at the tail end of “Bridges,” a series presented by the Kaufman Music Center and the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, the JACK — Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello — now had optimal indoor acoustics to show off their uncanny clarity and agility in these three premieres.

In the cheekily titled, 12-minute “A Complete History of Music (Volume 1),” the quartet’s skittering, airy playing is translated, through electronic processing, into fragments of recordings of works from the classical canon, which seem to mistily surround the live sounds.

The results might have been clearer over the super-sophisticated speaker system at Empac, the experimental arts center in upstate New York where the piece was workshopped earlier this month. At Merkin, you could make out a chorus in the first section — heard faintly, as if from a distant room. In the final section, “Appendix 2” (there is no “Appendix 1”), the electronics were still very quiet, and impossible to identify, but had a certain density, a soft sumptuousness.

A trembling motif passes around the four instruments in Allami’s “Ma-a a-ba ud me-na-gin Ma-a di-di-in,” gradually overlapping in waves for a kind of dusky, shaggy old-school Minimalism. The piece feels shorter than its 19 minutes, the music receding and rebuilding with a carefully wrought naturalness, and ending in a serene coda of slow, hazy unison chords.

Before the JACK played his “String Quartet 4.5,” Lewis — the eminent composer and scholar recently named the next artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble — said from the stage that he wrote the piece “against complacency,” as a reminder for audiences to “stay alert.” This is a political posture, but it’s also a declaration of Barnum-style showmanship, and the 17-minute work richly delivered, commanding attention like a ringmaster conjuring acrobats. The acts included sudden slides; a long unison squeal; a tiny, precious duet of little scratches between the first violin and the cello; and a passage of nearly lilting, Mendelssohnian delicacy. The other players twinklingly twittered as Campbell’s hand slid up and down the neck of his cello, for a woozy ondes Martenot effect. Near the end, crunchy grinding gave way to balletic glassiness. It was a spectacularly varied circus — and serious fun.

Danish String Quartet

The men of the Danish String Quartet — the violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland, the violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and the cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin — are masters of juxtaposition.

Their enlightening “Prism” albums trace lines from Bach’s fugues to late Beethoven and works of the 20th century. Another series, “Doppelgänger,” pairs Schubert’s final quartets (and his finest piece of chamber music, the String Quintet in C) with premieres that respond to them.

“Doppelgänger” has had a delayed start in New York. Because of the pandemic, Part I will arrive here last; on Thursday, the second installment came first, featuring the famous “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810) and Wennäkoski’s “Pige.”

Nørgaard introduced “Death and the Maiden” as “almost the definition of the Romantic string quartet,” though you wouldn’t have guessed that at first in the group’s interpretation — a controlled accumulation that built toward a sprinting and desperate tarantella.

This work’s nickname comes from Schubert’s earlier song “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” whose funereal opening serves as the theme for the second movement. Sørensen, as the first violin, was a stand-in for the Maiden, his articulation at the start delicate, even reticent. As the music becomes more animated, it lashes out and retreats, torn between fury and woe; the Danish players opted for restraint, their command of the score absolute but their passion understated.

In the second movement, they revealed the power in Schubert’s pauses, particularly with a patient ending, like an attempt to prolong its moment of peace. That couldn’t last forever, though: At the coda of that tarantella finale, here impressively cohesive amid increasingly frantic chorales and unstable runs, Death arrives in a sudden minor-key turn, delivered in grandly Romantic fashion.

“Pige” (Danish for “Girl”) shifts the focus from Death to the Maiden. As response pieces go, this one reflects less on the quartet — though nods to it abound, as in a version of Schubert’s long-short-short rhythm — and more on the original song. Schubert’s quartet never quotes the Maiden’s verse, which gets its due in the first movement of “Pige,” a series of phrases that start and disintegrate in wispy fragments and fading arpeggios.

Throughout, Wennäkoski balances extended technique and expressive lyricism, sometimes layering the two, but bringing the instruments together for affecting silences. Then comes the bright, episodic finale, “The Girl and the Scrapbook,” which takes flight with up-bow flourishes and a casual reference to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” In the final measure, the cellist (Schubert’s voice for Death in the quartet) tears a sheet of paper — “slowly and continuously,” the score says, at a forte.

The group followed “Pige” with a transcription of “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” a straightforward treatment with a touch of frostiness in trilled harmonics. That could have been a baked-in encore, but the Danish players returned with another arrangement: of “Der Doppelgänger,” the series’s namesake.

They referred to it as “one of Schubert’s best songs.” I’d agree, and add that it’s also one of his most terrifying, which they teased out by building on its harmonic ambiguity for a tension almost as discomfiting as the thought of death itself.

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Danish String Quartet wows crowd at Four Arts

The Society of the Four Arts hosted the charming Danish String Quartet on a windy Wednesday evening in the Walter S. Gubelmann Auditorium.

This unassuming group has performed together since they were friends at school.  The group began with three Danes, violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. Later in 2008, they added Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, whom they described as someone that “…looked like a character from ‘Game of Thrones.’” They like their beards and poking fun at each other. They also want us to understand their raison d’être: to have fun and share their endearing camaraderie with audiences.

The Danish String Quartet offered unique programming choices, beginning with Benjamin Britten’s “Three Divertimenti for String Quartet.” Written in 1936, this deconstructed set of courtly dances includes a March, Waltz, and Burlesque as movements. The divertimenti are not meant to be taken too seriously and are offered as light entertainment, justly keeping with the ensemble’s ethos.

However, the music provided intellectual stimulation as the audience experienced the familiar dance meters through Britten’s compositional lens. Like Joseph Haydn, Britten’s music contains many humorous moments as he easily embeds musical “jokes” into his works.

Each piece in the Britten set was a wonder of bowing precision and control that required difficult stops and chops of the bow. The players knew how to ring their instruments in the hall on releases to add extra effect. The final movement, the Burlesque, was technically perfect and equitably balanced in the instruments. The audience particularly liked the pizzicato passages, responding with enthusiastic applause.

In an unusual programming choice, the quartet combined dances from works by contemporary American composer John Adams, the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the Romantic Russian pianist and composer Felix Blumenfeld into a piece called “An Alleged Suite.”

The effect was almost like a dance and variation, beginning with the regal Charpentier “Prelude” and injected with movements from Adams’ “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.” The musicians seem to crave technical complexity; indeed, they excel at it.  But confronted with the Charpentier, the French Baroque idiom seemed a shock to their program while again asking us to have fun and not take this too seriously. Only when they passionately played through the musical sequences did the power of the combined suite become clear.

The quartet returned to the stage after intermission to perform a cornerstone of string quartet literature, Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet (String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810).  Each movement was performed with fire and technical agility, with an astounding clarity of balance in the ensemble.

The best responses of the evening came from a group of string students in attendance who were “wowed” by the ensemble’s presentation and inspired to go home and practice more on their instruments. For many, it was their first exposure to curated John Adams and the Britten “Divertimenti.” In the end, this may be The Society of the Four Arts’ greatest triumph: inspiring the next generation.

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Fuldt tryk på den romantiske gaspedal

Han er bare så meget musiker, den 49-årige britiske violinist Daniel Hope, at man ikke kan undgå at blive fanget ind af hans fortolkninger. Lige meget hvilken musik han fortolker. Han spiller med nerve og temperament, når han angriber noderne med intelligens, energi og teknik for at skabe musik, som er vedkommende her og nu.

Gennem 15 år har Hope været et hovednavn for det ikoniske gule plademærke Deutsche Grammophon og skabt sig et navn, som de fleste klassiske musikelskere kender. Og torsdag aften besøgte han København og koncertrækken ’Series of Four’.

Det blev et vildt besøg med rester af heftige romantiske forviklinger drivende ud af ørerne på publikum efter tre voldsomt fascinerende fortolkninger af værker skrevet i Frankrig omkring overgangen til det 20. århundrede. Vi fik Georges Enescus korte ’Impromptu Concertante’, Cesar Francks store ’Sonate for violin og klaver’ og Ernest Chaussons voldsomme ’Koncert for violin, klaver og strygekvartet’.

Uformelle oplevelser
De kalder den også ’Københavns hyggeligste koncertserie’, de fire årlige koncerter, som Den Danske Strygekvartet arrangerer under navnet ’Series of Four’. Og det er måske ikke helt forkert. Kammerkoncerterne, hvor kvartetten spiller sammen med musikalske venner eller inviterer musikere, de gerne selv vil høre, er blevet en veletableret del af musiklivet med uformel stemning, et stort begejstret publikum – og ikke mindst musikalske oplevelser, man ikke lige glemmer igen.

De blander kendt og ukendt med overraskende resultater. Her havde Daniel Hope den unge, ukendte amerikanske pianist Maxim Lando med sig som klavermakker. Han var virkelig en personlighed sine 20 år til trods, og det lykkedes ham at matche Hopes heftige violinstemme med perfekt timede blokke af klange op og ned ad tangenterne, f.eks. i Cesar Francks sonate.

Georges Enescus ’Impromptu Concertante’ for violin og klaver flød anderledes let. En simpel kombination af perlende klavertoner og længselsfuld violinmelodi sang sig ud af instrumentet for fuld hals. Det var så banalt som et gammelt minde om ungdommelig kærlighed, som man husker tilbage på med lige meget smil og tristhed. Hope og Lando bar klicheerne med elegance og nænsomt, klangskønt spil.

Der var meget mere tyngde hos Cesar Franck efterfølgende. Francks sonate er en fast del af det romantiske repertoire, men det er altså et værk, man aldrig helt bliver klog på. Det var på den ene side bare et lille tema, der for vild i en urskov af mærkelige udfordringer. Men det var samtidig musik i en dobbelttydig stemning af både rastløshed og ro, hvor man kunne mærke en paradoksalt sammensat glæde og melankoli over musikkens stræbsomme temperament.

Det var regulært hypnotiserende at opleve Daniel Hope fortolke den syngende violinstemme med konstante klanglige variationer – fra sart og støvet til vådt og vildt med stemplet i bund – alt imens musikken udvidede sig og trak sig sammen i store romantiske kapitler.

Efter pausen spillede de to sammen med Den Danske Strygekvartet i en usædvanlig tilbagetrukket rolle som luksuriøst akkompagnement.

Ernest Chaussons værk hører man sjældent i Danmark. Det emmede, ligesom Francks, af nødvendighed og desperation, fra de første toner blev hamret ud i koncertrummet som faretruende varsel om tre kvarters musik i det vådeste romantiske klima. Der gik et kvarter, før vi fik bare en anelse ømhed til ørerne i form af en blid konklusion og brokker af let fransk salonmusik.

Har man trang til at blive rusket godt igennem, kan man nappe sæsonens sidste koncert i serien i slutningen af maj, hvor strygekvartetten rotter sig sammen med en flok helt unge musikere.

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