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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Den strenge, den vilde og den milde

Carolin Widmann og Den Danske Strygekvartet insisterer på, at musikken skal bindes sammen på tværs af kulturer, tid og sted. Og det lykkes de rigtig smukt med.

De er sommeraktuelle på de danske festivaler, den tyske violinist Carolin Widmann og Den Danske Strygekvartet. Widmann var på Hindsgavl Festival i sidste uge og dukker op til Oremandsgaard Kammermusikfest i Præstø sidst i juli, mens de fire strygere i Den Danske Strygekvartet spiller i hele landet i anden halvdel af august, så snart de er hjemme fra deres USA-turne.

Begge har, som optakt til sommeren, udsendt nye, skarptskårne album med klassisk musik, der går på tværs af tid og sted, og hvor det lykkes smukt at iscenesætte virkelig forskellige værker mellem hinanden intelligent og meningsfuldt.

Den Danske Strygekvartet er nået til det fjerde album i deres ambitiøse samling med Beethovens fem sidste, ’gale’ strygekvartetter sat sammen med ældre og nyere værker. Hvor de hiver de originale værker ud af deres isolation og sætter dem ind i en ny historie.

Som altid begynder de med en fuga af Bach, der hænger sammen med Beethovens værk – fordi Beethoven, også i sin 15. strygekvartet, var voldsomt fascineret af Bachs musik af jagtende melodiske linjer. Og som altid slutter de med et nyere værk, der er forbundet gennem inspiration eller konkrete musikalske træk.

Denne gang et værk helt tæt på Beethovens, nemlig Felix Mendelssohns 2. strygekvartet, skrevet af den sprudlende teenager året efter Beethovens banebrydende værk udkom i 1827.

Det er blandt andet banebrydende, fordi Beethoven bryder fuldstændig med den form, strygekvartetten havde dengang. I midten af de fire satser kiler han en 20 minutter lang sats, en ’hellig takkesang’, der ud af ingenting toner frem som en renfærdig salme i kirken. Det klinger enkelt og rent som orgel, før musikken pludselig danser lystigt. På forunderlig vis skifter musikken flere gange mellem dans og salme, før de fire strygere får musikken til at samle sig i tættere og tættere inderlighed.

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The Danish Quartet: ’Our string quartet is the pot into which we can each pour our personal dreams and ideas’

Violist of the Danish Quartet Asbjørn Nørgaard shares the ensemble’s need to further explore string quartet repertoire through its Prism project

It is a privilege to play in a professional string quartet. We have all the joys of the established classical music world: a vast pool of wonderful standard repertoire, a certain demand for concerts and a pretty formalised and accepted concert format. But in addition to this, we have much more freedom and room for manoeuvre than big institutions such as symphony orchestras and opera houses: in a string quartet, the path from idea to reality is very short.

Any string quartet spends large amounts of time in the rehearsal room, just trying to honour and do justice to the musical scores. But in our group, we love to also spend time working on our bigger ideas and dreams. At any given moment, we have several projects brewing that are connected to the string quartet in different ways: genre crossing projects like our dips into folk music, pedagogical initiatives like our new DSQ Academy, our festival, our concert series, different commissioning projects (like Doppelgänger), theatrical performances, apps, podcasts and so on.

We are four different people, and our string quartet is the pot into which we can each pour our personal dreams and ideas to see if we can cook up something nice together. We love the standard string quartet format, but we also can’t just keep playing 3-set concerts starting with a Haydn quartet forever…

he basic idea for our Prism series came to our mind on a Lufthansa flight back in 2015, as I was reading Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven biography. Most of our ideas and projects are developed en route to concerts, so the Covid period hit our artistic development as hard as our bank accounts (when we are home, we spend all our time daddying a horde of kids).

The Prism project is probably at the more conservative end of the spectrum, whereas some of our other projects are perhaps more closely aligned with the current zeitgeist in classical music. It is centred around the pedestal of Beethoven. With simple curation, we connect his last five quartets to the music by Bach and five later masters. It’s nothing radical, but we think it is an elegant way to put these five musical monoliths in a bigger context, and we feel the project makes sense on paper as well as in the heart. The musicologists will hopefully be somewhat convinced, but more importantly: as the musical line of the albums starts to unfold, we find it is indeed a meaningful and new journey through music that everyone already thought they knew.

The Danish Quartet’s latest album Prism IV, consisting of works by Bach, Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn is out now on ECM Records.

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Danish String Quartet at UCSB’s Campbell Hall

UCSB Arts & Lectures Presented Part Two of Commission Project with Danish String Quartet

It’s been a whirlwind season of artistic triumphs for classical music in Santa Barbara, with all of our city’s prominent organizations dedicated to that art back in person and in fine form. Adding immeasurably to these cultural riches, UCSB Arts & Lectures has embarked on an ambitious program of presenting the world’s finest musicians and commissioning innovative new works for them. We saw and heard Jennifer Koh and Davóne Tines making musical history with Everything Rises at Campbell Hall just a month ago. Last week, on April 27, the Danish String Quartet (DSQ) returned to resume the presentation of their A&L commissioned project, the Doppelgänger. 

This undertaking aims at nothing less than a comprehensive reimagining of the core of the Romantic string quartet repertoire. Approaching one of the most significant quartets ever written as a source and inspiration, Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski took Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden,” and built her response to it, Pige, to better express the maiden’s point of view. 

The program began with the Danish String Quartet stretching out on Schubert’s original, an astonishingly fine piece of music of seemingly infinite depth. After the interval, they returned to bring some musical news. While Death was once the dance leader, “the future belongs to the girl.” Wennäkoski’s composition began in turbulent conversation; moved into ringing, bell-like tones; and achieved a final lyricism before the cellist signaled its conclusion by tearing the score in half. 

Another brief version of “Death and the Maiden” arranged by the DSQ closed out the main program, which the musicians followed with an encore expressing their homesickness based on a Danish folk song known as “Who Can Sail Without the Wind?” These musicians have elevated string quartet music beyond the expectations of even the most discerning connoisseur, and it is a privilege to welcome them as frequently as we do.

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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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