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.

Link to the article


A night of Scandi blue dreaming

The Danish String Quartet’s outlined the ambiguities of Alfred Schnittke’s music without any exaggeration, writes Nick Kimberley

Perhaps it was because the musicians were the Danish String Quartet, but last night’s performance of Alfred Schnittke’s Third String Quartet seemed like the soundtrack for a Scandi noir thriller.

Written in 1983, it’s a work that tries to consume the whole string quartet tradition, refashion it, then spit it out. The opening’s woozy glissandos and siren-like whines led to wisps of melody that drifted up, then ebbed away, while the second movement began jauntily, but ended in marvellously controlled turmoil. The finale offered no sense of settlement; the music simply ceased to exist.

The DSQ outlined Schnittke’s mysterious ambiguities without any exaggeration. It made a startling contrast with the Haydn that preceded it. Here, the players blended smoothly without any loss of individuality. The second movement proved particularly alluring, the first violin injecting a folkish tinge, as if lamenting lost love, while the other instruments sighed sympathetically.

First and second violins swapped roles for Beethoven’s second “Razumovsky” quartet. At first the playing seemed a little too poised, but the second movement gathered momentum, the third movement’s dancing rhythms were laid out with real swagger, then as all four players dug a little deeper, the final movement had some pleasingly rough edges.

That would have made a satisfying ending, but there was an encore, an arrangement of a 12th-century song about dreaming. It was ethereal, tinged with melancholy – Scandi blue, perhaps.

Link to the article


Meet The Great Danes: Chamber Music With A Scandinavian Twist

Our guiding principle for choosing repertoire has always been pretty simple,” said Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola player for Danish String Quartet. “We only perform music we like.”

“This sounds obvious,” he continued, “but sometimes as a classical music student you find yourself playing music that might be part of the canon but that you are not actually enjoying. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters to us is that we like the music we are performing.”

To listeners, that enjoyment is palpable. Whether they are interpreting late Beethoven or a contemporary Scandinavian composer, or playing traditional Nordic folk music, Danish String Quartet has mesmerized audiences worldwide with its flawless intonation, infectious energy, and masterly poise. They play at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston on January 28th at 8pm as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.

The group’s performances and recordings display a distinctive joy in music making, which has resulted in part from long-standing friendships. Now in their 30s, three members of the quartet—violist Nørgaard and violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen —met when they were in their early teens at summer camp in the Danish countryside for enthusiastic amateur musicians.

“For us, friendship and music making has always been inseparable,” Norgaard said. “As a quartet, you have to spend extreme amounts of time together. Many hours in the rehearsal room and traveling, plus all the high-pressure performances. Our friendship has allowed us to enjoy life as a string quartet quite a bit, and we believe that music thrives when musicians are happy, confident, and enjoying each other’s company on and off the stage.”

Since 2001, the group has performed under the tutelage of Tim Frederiksen, a third generation chamber musician at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Music.

“Tim gave us a way of working, a way of approaching chamber music that has been the perfect foundation for us to build on,” Nørgaard said, going on to explain Frederiksen’s remarkable attention to detail: “He will spend three hours on twenty bars of a Haydn quartet. When you go to a lesson with Tim, it feels like you enter a room with a jungle in your hands and leave with a nice Renaissance garden where everything is in balance and order.”

In 2008, the three Danish musicians were joined by Norweigan cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin —“We found him hidden away in a castle outside Stockholm,” says the group’s website—and the current incarnation of Danish String Quartet was born.

When they are putting together new repertoire, Nørgaard says it happens “in bursts of long rehearsal days” in their rehearsal room, a basement enclave at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

“There is more craftsmanship than artistry in this part of the process, so we are spending lots of time on basics like intonation and pulse. We leave most artistic decisions rather open and are not talking much—normally things start to settle by themselves without us having to verbalize every single thing we are doing. We are drinking lots of coffee, and as all of us are of a rather lazy nature, there is a lot of procrastination going on.”

Besides classical, what other music genres do the members of Danish String Quartet enjoy?

“Some of us are obsessed with Wagner operas, all of us are into different kinds of folk music, someone likes straight up pop music, one is a jazz fan, another likes romantic symphonies and Pergolesi, all of us love Beethoven. We get inspiration from all music that we encounter.”

Their January 28th performance in Boston will exhibit the group’s eclectic inspirations. The evening’s program includes a quartet by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke along with three Beethoven pieces. The Schnittke quartet borrows from Beethoven’s Grosse fuge and 16th century composer Orlando de Lassus; Nørgaard says it combines Lassus’s Catholic faith and Beethoven’s anger—“almost shaking his fist to the sky”—with Schnittke “hovering in between, unsure. All the doubt of modern man is in [Schnittke’s] music and he is looking back to find some answers.”


Music for a Bleak Election Season: A Glorious Shostakovich Moment at Carnegie Hall

On any given night, New York is full of extraordinary rites performed in basements and second-floor rooms. On Monday night, the Danish String Quartet carried out its regular professional duties, performing works by Shostakovich and Schubert at Carnegie’s underground Zankel Hall, and at the same time administered a raw kind of splendor. The concert opened with an almost intolerably dark and stripped-down performance of Shostakovich’s 15th and final quartet, from 1974. It’s a work of ravishing bleakness: The violin sings a cracked and lonely tune, struggling to get past its opening notes. The Danish quartet made it feel as though the voice could be snuffed out at any moment, and then the quartet would have ended, a whisper in the wind. Instead it stubbornly played on, as other instruments gathered, building the piece up from gasp to gasp until it formed the outline of a damaged soul. The funeral march in the final movement didn’t mark a passing, but rather described a burdensome existence. In these players’ hands, music accomplished what life often fails to do: fashion beauty out of pain. Shostakovich lived in a Soviet Union that honored and oppressed him, filling his days with dependency and fear. As I listened, I began to feel that if things go badly on November 8, this should be my Election Night song. I might even have to start each day with it for the next four years.

Replete, rich, and full of tragic euphoria, Schubert’s “C Major Cello Quintet” offers an antidote to Shostakovich’s bleakness. In the Adagio second movement, a quarter-hour of music I can’t imagine doing without, a quiet surf of melody rolls above lilting pizzicatos. The quartet, supplemented by cellist Torleif Thedéen, indulged Schubert’s rhythmic obsessiveness (dum-dum-DUM, dum-dum-DUM) and at the same time softened it into a heartbeat. The hardest thing about performing complex chamber music is to know the score so well that you create the illusion you’ve never heard it before. The Danes shot Schubert’s straits with bravado, letting the syncopations lurch a little on an upturned wave, jacking the intensity of a crescendo until it rattled, or planing into a pool of quiet. Every revelation felt inevitable; each repeated passage told a new tale. How can four thin blond men fuse so completely into a nimble, multi-bowed, poly-stringed organism that tracks the flitting shadows of a dead composer’s mind?

Link to the review



This Quartet Has a Line of Craft Beer

Back in 2012 and 2013, the members of the Danish String Quartet, who appear at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 26, had an unusual traveler accompany them on a tour through Denmark and England: a phenomenologist named Simon Hoffding. Then a doctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, he was troubled by a philosophical question: “What kind of self is present when the musician is deeply into his music?”

Being asked to think about how they think was no easy task, the violist Asbjorn Norgaard, 31, said over lunch at Tanglewood this past summer: Playing, after all, takes place “on such a subconscious level.” Even so, in his dissertation, Mr. Hoffding used interviews with the quartet’s players to come up with a taxonomy of how top musicians experience their performances.

There’s “standard playing,” which any amateur might aspire to. Rarely, for professionals, there’s “absent-minded playing.” Occasionally musicians are under stress — say, from an audience interruption — and labor to return to normality.

And, most rare and interesting, there’s “deep absorption,” when players enter a kind of trance, a state of “euphoric joy” in which they have complete control and yet feel almost disembodied. Think of it as the equivalent of how an athlete gets “in the zone.”

In a golden age for young string quartets — think JACK, Ébène, Escher,Attacca, Doric, Chiara, Spektral, Calidore and many, many more — the Danish String Quartet has drawn almost unanimous critical praise, particularly for its performances of Nielsen, Beethoven and others with theChamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. On record, it has set down roguish Haydn and poised Brahms, as well as Scandinavian folk music, a Dacapo release called “Wood Works,” and an outstanding survey of first quartets by Thomas Adès, Per Norgard and Hans Abrahamsen, on EMV. .

Theirs is playing of unusual, and unusually effective, liberty. When at their best, their tone throbs with joy.

“All Scandinavians feel like they have a bit of an anarchist inside them,” Mr. Norgaard said. “If someone tells us what to do, or what to wear, we go, like, ‘That’s dictatorship.’ We don’t feel boxed in by playing this old music that everyone else is playing. It’s just a canvas that we can work on. That being said, I don’t think that we are crazy. We are respectful.”

The starting point for any of their interpretations, Mr. Sorensen, 33, said, “is to try to have as much freedom as possible.” But, added Mr. Oland, 32, who shares duties in the first violin chair, “you can’t be free if you haven’t prepared well on a technical level. The main structure of it doesn’t change — maybe a little bit, but it’s not completely free. Freedom comes from being in control, in a way.”

It also comes from trust, in this case built over many years. The three Danes — and their cellist at the time, Carl-Oscar Osterlind — met at a summer camp, for all ages and most abilities, run by the Danish Amateur Orchestra Association.

“It’s not like this American summer camp stuff,” Mr. Oland said. “You play in two different orchestras during the day, and at night you play chamber music until you faint. We met there when we were something like 13, 14. We grew up there together, had our first beers there together, played a lot of soccer, played a lot of music, just formed a friendship that we have today.”

In 2001, when Mr. Sorensen entered the Royal Danish Academy of Music, they began lessons with Tim Frederiksen, whom the quartet refers to as “the godfather” of Danish chamber music: Once a violist in an incarnation of a different Danish String Quartet, he has also trained, among others, the superb all-female Nightingale Quartet.

Mr. Frederiksen focused the quartet’s repertoire, starting with Haydn’s “Emperor” and Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, began lessons that could last four or five hours at a time and insisted on throwing them into the public eye as early as possible. Opportunities opened up to play in front of chamber music societies across Denmark, particularly after the group won the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s Chamber Music Competition in 2004, as the Young Danish String Quartet.

After recording committed accounts of the complete Nielsen quartets for Dacapo, the quartet took a year off. In the process, its original cellist chose a solo career, and Mr. Sjolin, 34, then a student in Stockholm, joined the remnants. He blended in quickly, as the new foursome, having dropped the “Young” adjective, prepared for and then won the London International String Quartet Competition in 2009.

“Often you read about quartets changing a member,” Mr. Sorensen said, “and it takes like a year to try out different people. But from the first day, it just worked out.”

Since then, the quartet has been helped by rising-star programs like the BBC’s New Generation Artists initiative and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two. They essay a balanced repertoire, with a healthy smattering of new music — including, this season, a new quartet, “Swans Kissing,” by Rolf Wallin — among a diet of Haydn, Shostakovich and predominantly late Beethoven, scotching the notion that Beethoven is something that must be approached cautiously, especially by artists who might be considered less mature.

How do they choose their repertoire? “Sit down with a lot of beers, and a list,” Mr. Oland said.

Mr. Norgaard said they approached some notorious challenges without particular concern. “We would do all the late Beethovens first,” he said, “which was a no-go for any other quartet. It came very naturally.”

If their late Beethoven is perhaps unexpected, they have surprising gaps, too. Ravel haunts them, though their Debussy is exquisite. Mozart was tried early on but has disappeared from their repertoire.

“I’m a little bit scared of Mozart, actually,” Mr. Sjolin confided. “Scared is not the word. Every time, for some reason, it’s very, very difficult. It’s always two tempi, and either both of them work or none of them work.”

“The opening of the ‘Dissonance,’” Mr. Sorensen said. “We never really nailed that one.”

What they have nailed is a particular style, in demeanor if not in playing. The reputation of their beards precedes them, though that facial hair is more kempt than it once was. Their fashion is hipsterish, without irony or a sense of being mere appliqué. In Copenhagen, one of their concert series has its own line of craft beer, brewed by the Frederiksberg Bryghus. At their own DSQ Festival, they invite friends to play with them, do the vacuuming and turn the lights out at the end of the night.

“We found a perfect little spot,” Mr. Sorensen said, “which is an old girls’ school from the late 19th century, a beautiful place with room for about 150. There’s a soul in this place. This is a very lo-fi thing we have going on.”

There is no admission fee, Mr. Norgaard said, but there is a tip jar. “We have very pretentious programming, with an actor doing monologues from Tolstoy with Janacek quartets,” he said. “But it is a concert situation where people realize who is sending out the concert. It’s not some organization with a voice that tells you to shut off your cellphone. You go into our living room, and we want to play some music for you.”

The classical music field is, they agreed, often too eager to change things up simply to attract new audiences. “It’s healthy to try out new things,” Mr. Sorensen said. But “you can smell if something is just packaging.”

So their approach is refreshingly unapologetic. “When I enjoy musicians playing concerts,” Mr. Norgaard said, to murmurs of approval from his fellow musicians, “it’s when they’re very honest. We experiment a lot, and you can say that we are breaking down barriers, blah, blah, blah. But at the same time, we don’t do anything. We actually leave the music alone.

“What we’re saying, is that you can be easygoing, that you can have fun, and be very serious and deep at the same time. There’s no conflict there. You can have very funny rehearsals about sad pieces of music. It’s easier to be deep and serious, if you just have fun.”

Link to the review


The Danish String Quartet’s Manifold Vision For Classical Music

The Danish String Quartet is one of the most widely acclaimed chamber groups at the moment — although, in the interest of full disclosure, we should tell you that one member of the quartet is actually Norwegian. The group has a new record calledAdès/Nørgard/Abrahamsen that features a program of Danish and British music.

The composers highlighted on this release — Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård and Hans Abrahamsen — hold a special place in the story of The Danish String Quartet. Recently, two of the group’s members — violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and violinist Frederik Øland — spoke with NPR’s Scott Simon about how the recording, and the group itself, came together. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read on for an edited version.

Scott Simon: The two of you, and violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, have known each other since before you were teenagers. How did that happen?

Frederik Øland: Well, the three of us — Rune, Asbjørn and I — we met at this music camp in Denmark. It’s only a week every summer, and you go there with people of all ages to just play music for a week — orchestra stuff, and then chamber music throughout the night. And you don’t sleep a lot, that’s for sure. So we were just hanging out there, playing our first chamber music together, playing soccer — even having our first beers together, later on! This was a very nice place to grow up, because it’s a place that’s full of love for the music.

How did the composers Thomas Adès, Per Nørgard and Hans Abrahamsen wind up sharing space on your album?

Asbjørn Nørgaard: Well, this is a recording that we have been talking about for a long time, but it took a while to realize. The Abrahamsen was almost the first quartet we learned, almost 15 years ago. At this point, we were quite young; we were still teenagers. We had an idea that classical music was mostly Brahms, Mozart, Haydn — kind of nice stuff. And then our chamber music teacher back then, he put in front of us this piece by Abrahamsen. We had never heard about this guy. We started to play and it sounded really crazy. It sounded more like heavy metal than classical music!

We really, really enjoyed playing it, to use our instruments in a completely different way, and to experience that a string quartet can morph from something that’s in a way very classical, very in-the-box, and then it can explode and morph into everything you can imagine. We always thought we would like to record that at some point.

A little bit later in our development, almost the same story happened with the Adès — his first string quartet, Arcadiana. This is classical music, but [one] particular movement, called “Tango Mortale,” is very rough, very rhythmical, very aggressive kind of music. It also became a part of the story of our quartet. So then we had these two pieces that we really wanted to match on the recording.

What’s the classical music audience like these days?

Nørgaard: That’s a very complicated question. And actually, I think it’s — if I might say so — almost a wrong question to ask, because we just think about ourselves as musicians, not as maybe classical musicians in the old way. I think today, if you train as a classical musician, you need to sustain a great degree of flexibility. You need to be able to be in a bar and perform and not be awkward. And in our experience, we do our own festival in Copenhagen, and we’ve built an audience here which is quite young, actually. So we don’t share this kind of pessimism about the classical music audience that’s “dying away,” that you sometimes read about in the media.

Do you have a favorite composition on this release that you’d like to point us to?

Nørgaard: If there’s one track on this album that will have a popular appeal, it’s a specific movement of the Adès quartet [called “O Albion”]. A friend of mine said he thinks this sounds like Coldplay. It’s a very beautiful slow movement, and it’s just an example that classical music is many things: It can be aggressive, it can be beautiful, it can be simple, it can sound like it was written 500 years ago, and it could sound like it is being improvised in the moment. And that’s the joy we have as a string quartet, and I think this album represented well. It can sound like Coldplay, it can sound like heavy metal and it can definitely also sound like classical music as you think it should sound.

Link to the interview