The Danish String Quartet doubles the musical pleasure, pairing Schubert with new companion pieces

FOR INSPIRED musicianship, spectacular sonics, and visionary programming, it would be difficult to top Prism I, Prism II, and Prism III, the most recent recordings from Copenhagen’s Danish String Quartet.

The concept behind these three ECM releases is simple: take one Johann Sebastian Bach fugue, meditate on how its light is refracted through the prism of Ludwig van Beethoven’s prodigious imagination, and then bring that beam into the near-present with a Beethoven-inspired work by a great modernist composer. The effect is both literally and figuratively enlightening: through these illuminating sequences, listeners can discover historical continuities that cross from century to century, while gaining insight into how a composer’s mind can digest and process old music to arrive at something personal and new. That these lessons are delivered with uncommon joie de vivre is merely a bonus—as is the news that there are two more volumes in the series still to come.

But violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin have further gifts to bestow. Not content with simply reshaping the past, they’re moving into creating the future, with a new commissioning project that will pair four of their favourite living composers with four of Franz Schubert’s monumental string quartets. The premieres will be designed to reflect, in some way, the old masterpieces, hence the new project’s title: Doppelgänger.

“We’ve done so much Beethoven over the last many years, with the Prism project and also with the Beethoven year last year, that we were sort of looking for some of this other major repertoire that you can do as a string quartet,” Nørgaard explains, in a phone call from a San Francisco hotel. “We’ve been interested in the Schubert quartets for a while, the late Schuberts. And then we were quite happy with the way the Prism project worked out, so we wanted to do something a little bit like that, where we would put contrasting works next to each other. 

“We thought it would be an interesting thing to also commission some more music,” the violist continues. “We’ve done commissions before, but not as many as we maybe wanted to. So we thought it would be a nice framework where we could have those classical masterpieces sort of live side-by-side with the commissioning endeavour. We’re sort of covering a lot of bases at once, you might say, but also making the Schubert quartets more accessible to some people, and maybe also making the commissions more attractive to promoters.”

The plan appears to be working. Promoters worldwide, including our own Vancouver Recital Society, have signed up to present the full four-concert cycle, and advance reports are more than promising.

“Rich and elegant,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman said of the Danish String Quartet’s October 11 concert in Berkeley, describing the musicians’ approach to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G major as “a beautiful rendition that encompassed both the music’s serenity and anxieties”. Their countryman Bent Sørensen’s accompanying Doppelgänger, in contrast, felt “sunnier”, but “sometimes a haunted house feels all the more arresting for having a light shine upon its interior.”

We’ll hear the same program at the Orpheum this Sunday (October 17); future Doppelgänger installments will feature composers Lotta Wennäkoski, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Thomas Adès responding to three different Schubert masterworks.  

“We didn’t want to give the composers too much of a feeling that they had to do anything,” Nørgaard says of the commissioning project. “They sort of accepted the premise that their piece would be played side-by-side with a specific Schubert quartet. But I don’t know if they will quote the Schubert, if they will write something that’s similar to Schubert, something that’s completely different to the Schubert….It can be quite a personal thing, and they are the creators of the art. We just wanted to create a framework, and we are also curious to see how they will respond to that.”

Nørgaard reports that Sørensen’s Doppelgänger—the first of the four commissions they’ve received—makes specific musical allusions to the String Quartet No. 15 in G major, but the relationship between the two pieces is perhaps more impressionistic than quote-based. 

“These late Schubert quartets, they are huge pieces of music,” he notes. “They’re long, and all of them have in common this feeling of timelessness. For instance, in the G Major Quartet that we’ll do in Vancouver, it’s very long, and often it’s very repetitive. When you perform it or you listen to it, you’re almost sucked into a sort of meditation on music. The same melody comes 20 times in a row in very similar ways, and you sort of lose your sense of time perception. And I think this is the feeling that Bent has been trying to reach in his quartet as well. He’s playing around with the feeling of changing time all the time; there’s almost never two bars in a row that have the same time [signature]. It’s always changing; it feels like it’s always sort of slowing down, most of the piece, and then at the very end it speeds up and brings us back into reality.

“So I think he’s responding [to Schubert] in these ways: some specific quotes, something in the overall language, but maybe mostly in the feeling that we and the audience are going together into sort of a vacuum where the regular time doesn’t exist any more. That’s something that’s quite unique to the late Schubert, and that Bent maybe is also reaching for in his own quartet.”

A voyage out of time and into a sunny but slippery musical atmosphere? After the year-and-a-half that we’ve all shared, that sounds like a most enticing prospect.

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