A Broad Sphere of Light

Danish String Quartet with the Danish National Girls’ Choir

At a moment when it seems as though the musical world is flush with extraordinary string quartets, the Danish String Quartet still manages to stand out. After achieving worldwide crossover success with the chart-topping Last Leaf, an album of Danish folk music they released in 2017, it would be understandable if this group of hip and handsome thirtysomethings rested on their musical laurels and coasted through a career playing their own music to sold-out crowds, but that’s not what they are about. Instead, they launched into an ultra-rigorous recorded exploration of Beethoven’s late string quartets on the venerable ECM label. The results have blown away the critical community, particularly the most recent disk, Prism II, which contains their interpretation of the most famous Beethoven quartet of all, the No. 13 Op. 130/133, complete with its notorious Grosse Fuge.

Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures, we have had multiple opportunities to witness the growth and range of this organization, but what’s coming this time around makes even last season’s intense two-night stand look like a casual affair. On Tuesday, November 12, the four gentlemen will be joined on the Granada Theatre stage by the Danish National Girls’ Choir. Fifty young women strong, and armed with its own highly sophisticated repertoire, this powerhouse of a choir has been around in one form or another since 1938, thanks to the patronage of the Danish National Radio. Hot off a brilliant collaboration with American composer David Lang, the girls are only performing this unique collaboration one time in the United States, and it is happening right here. The next night, Wednesday, November 13, the DSQ returns to Campbell Hall for a recital that will include Beethoven’s final string quartet, the Op. 132.

The Independent exchanged emails with DSQ’s violist, Asbjørn Nørgaard, who had this to say about the events.

How did you begin working with the choir?  A couple of years ago, we were invited to perform with the Danish National Girls’ Choir for their traditional summer concert. We didn’t know exactly what to expect. I think our idea of a girls’ choir was quite traditional: polite girls with good posture, singing beautifully. But what we saw at that concert was quite different. They presented an ambitious and very exciting concert and really showed us what a choir can be.

Last year, we were Ensemble in Residence at the Danish Radio, and we used the opportunity to create a concert together with the Danish National Girls’ Choir that almost worked as a pilot for the concert we will present in Santa Barbara.

The combination of a string quartet with a 50-person choir is not common. How did you develop the program?  The program was developed as a continuation of a concert we did together in Copenhagen in 2018. The program moves from one single dark point into a broad sphere of light. All of it will be played in one musical flow where the transitions are worked out harmonically. There is maybe not a grand intellectual theme that unifies everything, but we want to show that beauty and the beast can and should live side by side. If you put a string quartet on a stage, the default sound is quite beautiful. Then add 50 singing girls, and it is like putting sugar on an ice cream. So we have worked a lot to present a program that shows some darker sides. A girls’ choir can sound like angels, but they can also be as scary as the twins in Kubrick’s The Shining.

What about the late Beethoven string quartets strikes you as most interesting now that you are further along with the Prism project?  Beethoven is often put up on a very high pedestal. He is worshiped like a god, and his pieces are treated as Moses’ Ten Commandments. But the more we work on this music, the more it feels obvious to us that this is not big, “institutional” music; this is not perfect music. The great, late Beethoven string quartets are long in duration and have their “crazy” moments, but they are special because they are small, imperfect and human.

What else would you like people to know about this season for the group?  2020 is a big Beethoven worldwide celebration. We will do our part with a couple of regular cycles in addition to presenting our Prism programs. It is lots of fun, and for a string quartet it can’t get better than this: It is a year of musical Mount Everests. But as dads of an ever-growing horde of babies and toddlers, we know that real life can entail other types of mountains that we also need to deal with while working on our Beethoven. Maybe that is why we keep returning to the human nature of his music this year? —Charles Donelan

Link to article here


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



Sprøde, Voksne Drenge

Værker af Thomas Adés, Per Nørgård og Hans Abrahamsen. Den Danske Strygekvartet. ECM 2453 (CD)

De fire drenge, der startede deres karriere som Den Unge Danske Strygekvartet, er i mellemtiden blevet voksne og har droppet betegnelsen unge. Men det er stadig en ung og dynamisk gruppe, og musikken, de her præsenterer, er blevet til, da komponisterne var meget unge. Tre komponister fra tre forskellige generationer er repræsenterede med hver deres første strygekvartet. Det kan opleves som punktnedslag i den nyere musikhistorie, hvor man takket være programlægningen ser uventede sammenhænge. En fællesnævner for de ellers ret forskellige værker er nysgerrighed og åbenhed over for nye og gamle inspirationskilder.

Den ældste af komponisterne er Per Nørgård (f. 1932), som var tyve år, da han skrev sin strygekvartet i to satser “Quartetto Breve” i 1952. Det er fin, koncis og koncentreret musik af en komponist, der tydeligvis har hørt og reageret på Bartók og Vagn Holmboe. Den senere Nørgård med alle hans forskellige udviklingsfaser ligger stadig ude i fremtiden, men det giver kun mødet med det talentfulde ungdomsværk en ekstra dimension. Den bliver fremragende forløst af Den Danske Strygekvartet, der spiller med en sprød udtryksfuldhed, som er dybt overbevisende.

Hans Abrahamsen (f. 1952) var elev af Per Nørgård, da han skrev sine “Ti præludier” i 1973. Det er ti ekstremt forskellige små stykker, fra stærkt atonale satser over amerikansk-inspireret minimalmusik til den afsluttende renæssancedans i C-dur. I mellemtiden havde man i Danmark oplevet en regulær modernistisk revolution inden for ny musik, som stadig vibrerer i baggrunden for meget af vor tids musikforståelse. Hans Abrahamsen var med til at føre dansk musik i en ny retning – men talte om ny enkel­hed og postmodernisme.

Engelske Thomas Ades (f. 1971), herhjemme blandt andet kendt som Sonningprismodtager og komponist af succesoperaerne ‘Stormen’ og ‘Powder Her Face’, er endnu en generation yngre. Hans strygekvartet ‘Arcadiana’ fra 1994 leger virtuost med elementer, der er genkendelige fra anden musik. Hver af de syv satser har en stem­ningsfuld titel og en musikalsk kliche som udgangspunkt – det kan være en venetiansk gondolsang, en argentinsk tango, en fransk pastorale eller en Elgar-agtig adagio. Titlen ‘Arcadiana’ henviser til det sagnomspundne lykkeland, der aldrig har eksisteret i virkelig­heden, men som ikke desto mindre er en stærk realitet i vores drømme og længsler. På samme måde omgås Ades de mange musikalske objets trouvees – som elementer med indbyggede stem­ninger og associationer, der indgår i en meget personlig og nutidig sammenhæng.

Det er et spændende og fint gennemtænkt program, Den Danske Strygekvartet har lagt, og opførelsesniveauet er tårnhøjt. Pladeselskabet ECM er mest kendt som Jazzlabel, men har også et flot udvalg af klassisk og ny musik, som regel af fineste skuffe. Fornemt og fortjent, at Den Dan­ske Strygekvartet er kommet med I dette selskab.