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Danish String Quartet mines the world of doubles for expressive gold

The Danish String Quartet performed a fascinating commissioned project in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

The concept of a doppelgänger, a mysterious twin or double, is like clowns and thunderstorms — mostly scary, but not always. Even something this unsettling can sometimes bring its own level of reassuring comfort.

“Doppelgänger,” the rich and elegant string quartet by Danish composer Bent Sørensen that had its U.S. premiere in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Sunday, Oct. 10, is of that latter type. It’s a warm, soothing bathrobe of a piece, playing tricks with our musical memories in a way that serves to reassure, not spook, the listener.

Sørensen’s 25-minute work was the centerpiece of a compelling program by the Danish String Quartet, presented by Cal Performances, and it marked the beginning of a fascinating commissioning project by the ensemble. For this undertaking — also titled “Doppelgänger” — the quartet invited a group of composers to pick a Schubert string quartet and write a new piece as a companion.

On this occasion, Sørensen took as his inspiration Schubert’s G-Major Quartet, D. 887, the composer’s final work in the form and itself a morass of ambiguities and subtle shifts in emphasis. At the heart of Schubert’s piece, which occupied the first half of Sunday’s program in a resplendently still-voiced rendition, is a simple but far-reaching question: Is the music in G major or G minor?

For a piece of tonal music, this is an existential quandary — or at least, it can be treated as such by a composer. That’s what Schubert does, creating a mood of slippery uncertainty by constantly switching back and forth between major and minor within the space of a single melodic phrase. Especially in the two outer movements, this has the effect of destabilizing everything we thought we knew about the musical landscape; the ground seems to crumble constantly beneath our feet. Yet the slow movement counteracts that image through an almost series of weightless harmonies.

The Danish Quartet — violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin — emphasized this duality in a beautiful rendition that encompassed both the music’s serenity and anxieties.

Sørensen’s piece, which followed intermission, seemed intent on picking up only the sunnier half of the Schubertian split, which is by no means a criticism. Sometimes a haunted house feels all the more arresting for having a light shone upon its interior.

More important, Sørensen’s two-movement work boasts its own ambiguities, including an elusive sense of form and a way of repeatedly tickling the listener’s memory. The conflict between G major and G minor is revisited in the opening measures, which quote the harmonies of Schubert’s first movement and the instrumental texture of his third; after that, Sørensen uses Schubertian gestures for his own expressive ends.

This is most apparent in the gorgeous second movement, a slow chorale that somehow morphs into in an instrumental aria for the second violin and then a delicate ballroom dance for marionettes. Schubert’s doubts rear their heads in the quartet’s final moments, in which a definitive G-major conclusion suddenly gives way to an open-ended question mark.

Schubert’s late song “Der Doppelgänger,” arranged by the quartet, made a terrifically apt conclusion, its dark, lugubrious harmonies undermining — or at least casting a shadow backward on — the previous delights. In the world of twins and doubles, nothing stays the same for long.

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