in: Reviews

January 31, 2017

Unanimous Outing for Danish Four

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Today’s golden age of string quartets glisters more and more. It can hardly be the case that the Danish Quartet practices more, or harder, or somehow more effectively than other quartets today. But Saturday night at Jordan Hall in the Celebrity Series the group gave a performance of Beethoven and Alfred Schnittke with ensemble playing at an unobtrusively superhuman level.

From 1800, the 29-year-old Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 4 is the only one of that set which has some of his C-minor dark to it, not a lot, both at the start and then sporadically throughout, along with nifty syncopations. The Danes rendered the work utterly musically, relaxed and unanimous, in hair-trigger rhythm. Rare imperfect intonation did not need to be noticed. The young men, presenting as Brooklyn beard farmers in Norse hipster black—violinists Fredrik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Frederik Schøyen Sjölin—give little energy to overshaping moments, to overdemarcation. My lapsed-cellist date declared their performance “absolutely effing perfect” but perhaps “a little too varnished, and unengaged”. I myself thought it altogether marvelous, albeit somewhat rounded, true, lacking, rightly or wrongly, in that articulated and usually oversized Haydnesque crispness familiar from other quartets’ (particularly American) early Beethoven.

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) music is an eclectic, referential postmodernism (Ted Libbey’s wording) in which everything could be used and parodied, even banal ideas, but with an urgency both serious and ironic. He wrote many dozens of film scores, and that facility shows everywhere in a post-Shostakovich, sometimes quasi-serial manner. His Quartet No. 3 opens with Orlando quoted in droning supplicative mode, followed by those (upcoming) Beethoven Grosse Fuge climbing intervals and eventual declaiming, and next much more poly-quote material, dramatically formed, not to say finely stewed: agitated perpetual motion, Soviet hoedown, Crumby insect swatting and swarming, tundral Ives, Dvorak hysterias and later Verklärte Nacht shrieks, humming Glassian chords, Vaughan Williams Tallis and then Górecki dronality, Grosse Fugue plucks, Russian Orthodox hymnody marching in half-steps, and back to Orlando supplication and changes wrought on D-S-C-H. The middle movement glimpses Classical formality in a sort of giddy crisis.

I found the Schnittke a stirring experience overall, and wish to hear it again. The Danish Quartet performed it so well, with such unstrained aplomb, that … well, was it a little on the pat side? In any event it was more elegant than the Kronos’s read. In fact, during halftime I began to wonder if the Danes’ almost unbelievable unanimity, actually achieving the hoary ideal of a single wideband instrument, ever worked against them. Like other European quartets they deploy with rounded attacks and rounded releases, anti-crisp, anti-big, generally muted as to dynamic range, no overpresentation, no overbiting, no over- anything. It’s breathtaking to hear, to mix physiology—but are they not sometimes a bit ungripped, and ungripping?

I wrote to a chamber-music colleague who knew their work well. I went on about their oneness and streamlined sound, their geniality, their polish, none of it in the bad senses. How they were so much both lighter in touch and x-raying than most. I felt similarly to my first time hearing the Yale or the Tokyo (or the Casals) Quartets. “That sounds like them,” came the response. “I admire them, vivid personalities, musically smart and vibrant. … Interesting to ponder this result of energy and quest for unanimity, and their sweet dispositions tinged with ‘don’t mess with me!’”.

Beethoven’s Opus 130 was one of those transcendent concertgoing moments. I have recently heard exalted, yet quite different, renditions by the Jupiter and Leipzig Quartets. This Danish one sang nobly, exactly, with deep interiority, as if we were overhearing, and except for a stray cough Jordan Hall was as quiet, dead quiet, as I have ever heard it. The playing was effortless, perhaps a shade unurgent, Beethoven’s deaf whispers and throbs momentarily muted. You could briefly register how luscious the sound was before realizing that that was beside the point. But the performance had unbroken drive, and the choked beklemmt music was fully anxious and straitened, costing the composer tears, it was reported at the time, and again in his recollections. And then that Big Fugue, recentering the heard weight, to end a composition (Michael Steinberg) “unrelieved in ferocious vigor, limitlessly bold in harmony”, [its pried-open moments still] “so startling that you could almost think you were dealing with a badly spliced recording.” Eventually “the four instruments then unite in strong octaves like those at the beginning of the Overtura, and from there Beethoven moves swiftly to the end. The resolution of these extraordinary, unprecedented conflicts posed is surprising and touching—a mixture of the exalted and the humorous that only Beethoven could have invented.”

The Danish String Quartet acquitted this strange, jarring work with a hair less vehemence and more musicality than the norm. The lost, falling-apart moments in the middle and before the end sounded more lost and fallen-apart than usual. They were secure-seeming even when not perfectly secure, so ensemble that even when they went off the road and hit the shoulder, losing sweetness (the first violin)—or in the Grosse Fuge sometimes it seems it’s Beethoven himself who’s responsible for the flailing—they did it together, every man, bobsled-style.

(TMI department: Halfway through the fugue my enthrallment was such that I drooled on my notes. Another first.)

Crewing teams speak of swing, and psychology books about groups describe what it means to be in the flow. Good musical quartets learn about such states. But in almost all ways, these guys are Viking masters. If you’re a chamber type, do not miss them

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

The Danish String Quartet at Ozawa hall last summer (Hilary Scott photo)

16 Comments

  1. Thanks for David Moran’s excellent review. We are indeed fortunate to have a plethora of amazing string quartets. This was my first outing with the Danish group and I hope to hear them again. The opening Beethoven, Opus 18/4 delivered an ensemble who exhibited a likeness of phrasing, dynamics and musical thought. The Beethoven quartet announced was to be the G major, Opus 18/2, but the C minor was a welcome substitute. The Schnittke quartet I knew from both the Kronos and Quatuor Molinari recordings, but my first hearing in a hall. A very satisfying work and performance if somewhat over indulgent with its myriad styles, but a perfect foil to the two Beethoven quartets, especially with the Grosse Fuge quotes. Truthfully, the Grosse Fuge makes me nervous, such an incredible piece, but I almost feel sorry for the players as it stretches string player to an almost impossible level. Perhaps string quartets look at it as the “Winterreise” or for actors, the “Hamlet” of their repertoire. The fact that some string orchestras have taken this challenge (not without some objection) is mind boggling. Interesting, this is a quartet whose first and second violinists trade places according to certain works. A memorable performance of the entire Opus 130. Return Danish Quartet.

    Comment by Terry Decima — January 31, 2017 at 11:05 am

  2. thanks; my bad, will fix; I blame the drool

    Comment by david moran — January 31, 2017 at 12:37 pm

  3. David, at such a concert, I think drool is admissible, and admitting to it is certainly to your credit.

    Comment by Terry Decima — January 31, 2017 at 2:57 pm

  4. Thanks :) . My original hed was ‘Danes Great’.

    Comment by david moran — January 31, 2017 at 4:35 pm

  5. What a fugue! What a concert! What a vivid review!

    (pause to wipe away drool…)

    Comment by nimitta — February 2, 2017 at 10:15 am

  6. I seriously considered driving up to Dartmouth a couple days ago to see if their seemingly calm drama wore well. (I’d just listened to some more energetic-sounding Borromeo work.) I didn’t go, but this online comment from a student there seemed insightful and interesting — ‘obstacles’, huh:
    In the [DSQ] masterclass, Pyun [student] said that a particularly instructive moment was when Øland asked the students in Pyun’s quartet group to play with their eyes closed in order to eliminate the visual stimulants. “It was very counterintuitive instruction, because in a small ensemble we place a high premium on visual cues for communication,” Pyun said. “But once we played with our eyes closed, it seemed like the music gained a fluency that we hadn’t been playing with before. It was revealing all of our visual communication as obstacles.”

    Comment by david moran — February 2, 2017 at 1:50 pm

  7. I don’t think I drooled, but I might have hyperventilated a little. “unobtrusively superhuman” is just right. In the Razumovsky they were, I agree, very rounded, balanced, without anything overemphasize ; in other words, Classical. It might have seemed too perfect, too inhuman, for some, but that is the ideal to which music of this period aspires. If there was any lack of balance, it was in the degree to which the first violin stood out, but that’s also characteristic of the period, and is mostly Beethoven’s doing. And they did switch first and second in the second half.

    I’m very enthusiastic about Schnittke, and know a number of his works, but this was the first time I had heard any of his quartets, and one thing about Schnittke is that familiarity with some of his works doesn’t really prepare you for the encounter with a new one. The Danish Quartet either: A), revealed this work to be an unacknowledged masterpiece, or B), persuaded some (like me) that it is a masterpiece when it really isn’t. Both of these are remarkable accomplishments, though B) is pernicious and should be frowned upon.

    One of the best things about the performance of the Grosse Fuge was that it actually played its intended part as the final movement of Op. 130, a logical conclusion, rather than an otherworldly, mysterious interloper in the proceedings. It did, however, do what it’s supposed to do when it came, which is assault, challenge, and defy the musicians and the listeners mercilessly until its rage was fully consummated. It is generally thought that when a work aspires to a very high level of intensity, it must start out at a lower one, so there is somewhere for it to go; but Beethoven disdains this stratagem. The Grosse Fuge is only really convincing when a quartet throws themselves into it headlong from the beginning, never letting up, never giving themselves or us any refuge. I think the Danish Quartet did that. It’s a good thing the applause went on so long, though. I might have been a bit unsteady on my feet if I had tried to walk anywhere any sooner.

    Comment by SamW — February 2, 2017 at 7:25 pm

  8. A minor correction (I think): I’m pretty sure the cellist is Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, and not Frederik Øland. I was at the concert with my Swedish wife. She pointed out that it was odd (to a Scandinavian) that Fredrik’s name had both an ø and a ö, which are basically two different symbols for the same vowel. I said, “He’s Norwegian,” and she replied, “Oh, of course,” in a special tone of voice that Swedes reserve for comments about Norwegians.

    That being said, she was able to rise above her regional biases and admit that it was a stunning performance. For three Danes and a Norwegian, that is.

    Comment by Paul Eldrenkamp — February 9, 2017 at 7:23 am

  9. Mr. & Mrs. Eldrenkamp are correct: Fred Sjölin is the DSQ cellist and hails from Norway. Thank goodness for immigration!

    Comment by nimitta — February 9, 2017 at 10:51 am

  10. Yes, I reversed the Fred(e)riks; apologies.

    Comment by david moran — February 9, 2017 at 1:43 pm

  11. No droo…er, sweat, David – this was great music writing. I can’t agree with your date, though – the only varnish I remember was on the instruments.

    Comment by nimitta — February 9, 2017 at 2:14 pm

  12. Thanks much.

    He and I have been, respectively, relistening to 18/4 as told by Smithson (Schröder et alia) or Tokyo, and it does seem that those guys find more (edge?) in it than DSQ would allow themselves to be interested in.

    The WaPo review of a few days ago shows some concurrence:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/danish-quartets-beethoven-crisp-if-not-playful/2017/02/03/68a6d702-ea35-11e6-903d-9b11ed7d8d2a_story.html

    Readers who missed them and are interested in how they sound rather different from others might find this instructive:

    Comment by david moran — February 9, 2017 at 3:55 pm

  13. Tons better than the BSO that night. Shame on me for not taking the risk.

    Sadly, they muffed the wonderful transition into the Finale, where Beethoven specifically asks for the pulse to stay constant from one movement to the next. They didn’t actually didn’t quite do that until they eased into the (often more relaxed) viola variation.

    Comment by Camilli — February 9, 2017 at 7:54 pm

  14. The Op. 74 is not from the Jordan recital reviewed.

    I do not know how many quartets and chamber coaches actually study the 1994 Steinberg (et alia) performance-oriented book on the quartets.

    Comment by david moran — February 10, 2017 at 12:25 am

  15. I don’t know about Steinberg– the score itself is pretty clear if you know how to count to 100.

    Comment by Camilli — February 10, 2017 at 12:39 am

  16. Well, so’s the opening of Opus 127.

    Comment by david moran — February 10, 2017 at 1:22 pm

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