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.