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The Danish Quartet’s Search for Beethoven Style

In recent years, the young Danish Quartet has secured a devoted international following. There is little surprise here: they exude a uniquely Scandinavian sense of discovery and charm but, more tellingly, have a lovely, warm sound, play with natural ease and thoughtfulness and have a keen eye for beauty. Moreover, they create intriguing concert programmes, often mixing explorations of the deepest classical repertoire with affecting adaptations of Danish and Norwegian folk tunes. The ‘art of the fugue’ and the links between Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich have figured centrally among their themes and have been explored in their recent ‘Prism’ series: the first (of five) volumes has now been released on ECM. The folk tunes have come in the albums ‘Last Leaf’ and ‘Wood Works’.

This concert mixed two Beethoven quartets with another round of engaging folk tunes and, on the surface, suggested a most pleasurable experience. Yet it also revealed some of the limitations of the ensemble’s approach to Beethoven: in their quest to expose tonal beauty and unearth passages of deep emotional suspension, they unwittingly smooth over sharper, more complex dimensions of the composer’s expression. A coating of unwanted sentimentality seems to fill this gap, increasingly so as one moves to the later quartets. Perhaps the group just loves Beethoven too much – but it is apparent that no amount of reverence or romantic adornment will conquer the later quartets. Here the early Op.18 No.4 was nicely realized but, as in their previous traversals of two late quartets, it was the Op.74 No.10 (‘Harp’) that produced the red flag – extended romantically in a way that compromised the purity of the work’s line. Nonetheless, an ample selection of Nordic folk tunes (played between the two works and in the encores) did much to create positive energy, and one really had to marvel at the quartet’s skill in using (largely) vibrato-less articulation to find beautiful moments of innocent feeling alongside foot-stomping rustic rhythms.

In reviewing the Op.131 No.14 quartet in 2014, I lauded the ensemble’s tonal beauty and sensitivity but noted: ‘The writing’s stark boldness and its frequent risk-taking in both tempo and dynamics never really took hold to transport us to different places – as if the ensemble believed that the sacredness of the initial fugue would be diminished if they pushed strongly into the more aggressive, jagged regions’. And again in 2016, for Op.127 No.12: ‘…their Beethoven once again did not seem to hit the composer square on: the approach was just too smooth and cultivated to capture either the myriad of conflicting forces and tensions operating on the composer in his last years or the raw iron in his response to these realities’. I have no distaste for beautiful performances of Beethoven: the classic Quartetto Italiano gave tonally ravishing and perceptive accounts of these works, but I never felt them too ‘soft’ or remotely sentimental. It is also interesting that in the two concert pairings of Beethoven and Shostakovich above, I always thought that the Danish ensemble was more successful in Shostakovich.

The bounty at this concert was the performance of Beethoven’s early Quartet No.4, which was cunningly thought out and moved forth with energy and perceptive detailing. The opening Allegro had greater structural breadth and warmth than more mercurial treatments, but the sense of dynamic contrast and the balance between carefree frolic and dramatic assertion were achieved convincingly. There was one passage where the ensemble dropped to pianissimo for a greater penetration of the work’s undercurrents, but it was effective, given the impassioned response at the movement’s end. Attractive rhythmic point and playfulness distinguished the Scherzo, with sensitive articulation in the contemplative reaches of the Andante. The Minuetto offered similar attractions, finding effective lyrical expansion and conversation in the Trio. The rondo finale mustered full Haydnesque drive, moving with virtuosity and rustic flavour and bringing the work home with excitement. This was distinguished playing, securing overall coherence and offering a greater variety of shadings than we normally hear.

I have always regarded the ‘Harp’ Quartet as a breath of fresh air between the richer romantic sentiment of the Razumovsky quartets and the significantly more impassioned Op.95 No.11 (‘Serioso’). It doesn’t offer an experience as intense as either but has a unique crystalline beauty all its own. It’s unfortunate that the Danish Quartet tried one of their experiments here, for the performance did not start that well. The poco adagio was given fairly extended treatment, but the bigger concern was that the allegro did not operate in long enough paragraphs and failed to suspend all the pizzicati with their characteristic delight. This playing seemed slightly burdened, having less verticality than it might. The Adagio extended the problems, as it was inflated to Brahmsian proportions at a very measured speed. It is not clear why a group would aim for this scale – expanded emotional depth? – and it was disturbing to hear this movement pushed to a type of rich burnished melancholy that was identical to that of Brahms’ String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.51. The sentiment didn’t fit. The violently inflected rhythms of the Presto took one a little off guard, but here the experiment seemed to be to establish a link to the more visceral drama in Op.95. It was too rushed, and the leader sacrificed the lyrical reach in his phrasing. Beethoven writes so well in the Theme and Variations form that one always looks forward to the ingenuity of a finale written in this form. The quartet closed the movement with a natural synergy, but it took them a while to get going: other instances of Brahmsian heaviness and items like arbitrary references to the ostinato passages in Op.59 No.3 figured in the earlier exposition. It is a beautiful work as it stands, and there is no need to supplement it with this type of musical travelogue.

The attractive folk encores put Beethoven well behind us, and the ensemble is now on sabbatical for six months – all was well. Fortunately, sabbaticals are also good for re-evaluating how one should approach Beethoven’s later quartets: the plus here was the Op.18 No.4, but that is easier to negotiate. While I found the Op.127 and 131 rather beautiful but soft in previous concerts, this Op.74 was neither particularly beautiful nor stylistically convincing. Food for thought indeed.