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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