Danish String Quartet stuns at Ozawa Hall

LENOX — Wednesday evening, the crowd that gathered at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall for the Danish String Quartet’s performance could be divided into two camps: those who had at least some idea of what they might be in for, and those who had none. My concert buddy, an arts-marketing professional and lifelong cellist, was in the latter camp, and by intermission his eyes were alight. “I could listen to them play anything,” he said several times. Likewise, the woman behind me on my way out: “So how was that?” I heard her friend ask, and I turned around to see her struggle to find words through a wide smile.

Going into this performance, I was solidly in the first group. I’d seen several videos of the quartet online, as well as a virtual concert by Dreamer’s Circus, violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen’s Nordic folk band. But nothing could have truly prepared me for the tornado of energy that the quartet unleashed with its performance of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden.” Cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin dropped a subtle hint of what was to come when he led the quartet onto the stage, not so much walking through the stage door as leaping.

But there wasn’t much time to process that before the foursome attacked the first descending scales, letting the stark sound echo and dwindle in Ozawa’s rafters. The eminently hummable foundational melody of the second movement (borrowed from the composer’s own song “Death and the Maiden”) was rendered in a misty, translucent texture that lent a ghostly, foreboding quality to both it and the many variations that followed, individually distinct though they were. The players seemed to dance in their seats: In certain moments, it would have felt like no surprise if they got up and whirled around the stage.

With that, the galloping theme of the final movement — played with surprising sweetness in its first few incidences — turned into a seductive danse macabre, bridging twitchy interludes where the violins seemed to scream in terror. Everything around was improbably in tune with the music, from a stray alarm bell to a crow cawing outside: When Sørensen, playing first violin, smacked a stray piece of score with his bow to keep it from falling, it sounded uncannily like a whip crack, and on beat at that — perhaps the maiden fleeing Death on horseback? The standing ovation was nearly instantaneous.

So what is it about them that prompts such acclaim? It’s not their technique — slobs they are not, but there are ensembles with more polish. Neither is it a commitment to any particular style of music, or style of playing. For my part, I’ve got to give it to two things: their commitment to connecting and contextualizing music from all areas of the concert music tradition and beyond, and the unbridled joy they take in playing with one another. Whether playing the well-traveled quartet, or Lotta Wennäkoski’s thorny “Pige” (the main event of the second half) or the Danish folk tune “Five Sheep, Four Goats” that they offered as an encore, there was every indication that they were having the time of their lives.

“Pige,” Danish for “girl,” which was commissioned by the group as a companion piece to the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, offered an intentionally striking contrast to the melody-driven first half. Writing about the piece, the composer expressed her wish to convey the perspective of the “maiden,” and the first movement seemed to translate the rhythms and cadences of a young woman’s speech onto the stringed instruments. The second movement indulged in extended techniques and insect-like sounds, perhaps a little overly so: The music gelled more in the finale, a “scrapbook” of jumbled samples from various sources, including Schubert’s songs and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which ended with the cellist gleefully ripping a sheet of paper. The program ended as it began, with Schubert: the quartet’s arrangement of the “Death and the Maiden” song.

Conventional wisdom would have dictated that the order of the program be reversed, with the source material first, then the contemporary piece as a prelude to the main event. (The first movement of “Pige” can be performed as a prologue to the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, according to the program notes.) But turning conventional wisdom (metaphorically) on its head seems to work for these four: So it was literally as well.

At Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Aug. 3.

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Prism IV (Danish String Quartet)

Finessed, insightful playing makes a strong claim for attention.
Editor’s Choice – September 2022

The penultimate volume in the Danish String Quartet’s Prism series linking Bach fugues with string quartets by Beethoven and later composers boasts revelatory playing, finessed and fierce, that penetrates to the bone, fibre and heart of the protean Lutheran’s successors’ music. Where previous instalments highlighted 20th-century quartets by Bartók, Schnittke and Shostakovich, here the focus shifts backwards in time to Mendelssohn.

The jumping-off point is the G Minor “Little Fugue” (BWV861) from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, whom Beethoven admired enough to recommend students to him. In truth, it’s a workmanlike arrangement, but one whose subdued, unsettled temperament is realised by the Danish foursome with a duly adroit and spryly voiced exactitude that prepares the ground for what is to follow.

That work’s leading four-note motif, transposed down a seventh for the cello, provides the kernel (intentional or not) for the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No 15 in A Minor (Op.132). The catalogue is well stocked with recommendable recordings of this venerable late work, to which can be added this candid, soul-bearing reading.

Noticeable from the off, in the sprung, buoyant opening where dark undercurrents pull away from surface splendour, is the alert, precisely proportioned sense of reciprocity in the Danish quartet’s playing. In Beethoven’s chamber music, as in life, the onus is on listening before responding. That attitude reaps considerable rewards here in the finely balanced interplay between all four voices that registers in dazzling contrapuntal complexity, in daringly delineated contrasts and in often movingly expressive intimacy.

That latter quality distinguishes the major-key second movement, realised with faultless balance, the transcendental trio beautifully described. But it is in the third, Molto adagio, movement with its becoming, altogether affecting slow-motion keening, that the Danish String Quartet lock eloquent antlers with the Alban Berg Quartet’s benchmark live recording (EMI Classics). As hushed as it is intense, it is the precision of the playing here, in tempo, temperament and exquisite detailing that so compels.

The miniature fourth movement deports itself with an almost prim sense of propriety, selflessly serving as the conduit between what has been and what is to follow, deftly seeding the ground for the surging Allegro appassionato finale. Initially sketched as the conclusion to the Ninth Symphony (subsequently abandoned for its now indelible choral ending), it is an exultant exercise in that most Beethovenian of traits: resolution. And is superbly realised here.

Also cast in A Minor, the 18-year-old Mendelssohn’s ardently articulate Second String Quartet was composed in homage a mere matter of months after Beethoven’s death in 1826. Unabashedly indebted to the classical titan’s Op. 132 and its immediate quartet sibling, No 16 (Op. 135), it also anticipates fast-emerging romanticism. The Danish String Quartet occupy this Janus-faced cusp with relishable fire and finesse to imbue a youthful outpouring with all the considered maturity it merits.

Recorded sound in the 14th-century Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Bavaria is exemplary. The booklet includes characteristically erudite, self-recommending, notes by Paul Griffiths and the Danish String Quartet.

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