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Danish String Quartet thrills with superb performance in inaugural weekend of La Jolla Music Society residency

The game was afoot Friday evening at The Auditorium at TSRI as the Danish String Quartet superbly played a thoughtful concert whose first half examined the classical music tradition of hunting music and whose second explored a quartet by their fellow countryman, Carl Nielsen.

Nielsen’s “String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Opus 13” was written before he became the Carl Nielsen we think of today. It’s a late Romantic work whose rustic scherzo gives us a taste of the later Nielsen. The Danish String Quartet performed it with passion, humor and force.

Thank the La Jolla Music Society for bringing them to San Diego for a three-year residency. Their uncanny unity of ensemble and tone, matched to an intellectually stimulating and musically compelling programmatic sensibility, has made them one of the premier string quartets of their generation.

Grace and technical expertise reigned in Haydn’s “String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 1, No. 2” and Mozart’s “String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 458.” Neither Mozart nor Haydn gave these quartets the nickname “The Hunt,” but their first movements do suggest horn music that contemporaries could have heard at stag hunts.

The high point of the concert, however, was Jörg Widmann’s “String Quartet No. 3,” subtitled “Hunt-Quartet.” On the surface it was a modern consideration of tropes heard earlier on the program. The horn-like melody, the simple tonic-dominant harmonies, and the vigorous 6/8 rhythms evoked the hunting music genre that Haydn and Mozart utilized — consciously or not — in their string quartets. The open-stringed double stops in all four instruments suggested the rugged, unruly sounds of outdoor horns.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that the four-bar phrase obsessively repeated or hinted at is a quote from Robert Schumann’s “Papillons.” This quote certainly sounds like hunting music, but there are two more levels here. Schumann was quoting a well-known folk tune called “The Grandfather’s Dance,” implying old traditions. Schumann again quoted the tune in “Carnaval,” where it represented cultural Philistines. Widmann quoted a quote of a quote.

Widmann’s use of historical material does not imitate or nostalgically evoke the past. He takes a quotation and slams it against modern harmonies and extended string techniques such as scraping bow noises, snapped pizzicatos and unstable glissandos. He strips away centuries of cultural grime, rips apart the original and brutally examines it. It’s clear by the end of “Hunt-Quartet” that the jolly old fox hunt is cruelly sadistic.

Stag or fox hunting with horns was associated with aristocracy, a connection that still exists. Elsewhere Widmann has written about a “triple crisis” facing humanity, namely eco-disaster, uncontrollable finance systems and an increasingly unstable geopolitical structure. We now doubt basic assumptions of our society. “History,” he writes, “is moving rapidly beyond its all too hastily proclaimed end.”

There is a very strong theatrical component to “Hunt-Quartet.” The players whip the air with their bows like riding crops, yell out hunters’ cries, and in the end, three players form a musical alliance and turn against the cellist, resulting in his implied death. This scapegoating is, in Widmann’s words, “an analogy to social patterns of behavior.”

Artists are often viewed as prognosticators, culturally peering into what may lie ahead. Take a look at our global crises today and consider that Widmann wrote “Hunt-Quartet” 16 years ago.

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