On hearing an ensemble for the first time, a critic tries to descry its distinctive qualities. We’re unlikely in this golden era to hear a string quartet with inadequate technique, but more likely to hear one that is indistinguishable from its peers. In business since 2002 and with the current personnel since 2008, the well-respected Danish String Quartet added the Borletti Buitoni Trust Award to its collection of prizes last February, and just issued its debut disc on ECM.
In Ozawa Hall Thursday night, the quartet revealed its essential character from the start. Here was a uniform foursome that produced a creamy tone through a smooth legato without a touch of grittiness—more genial Victor Borge than warlike Erik the Red. To these ears in row R, though, the projection seemed a bit wan, as if coming through slanting late afternoon rays in a cold climate.
Composer Per Nørgård tells us that his 1952 Quartet No. 1, Quartetto breve, “has a firm root in the Nordic tradition and is strongly inspired by Jean Sibelius and my teacher Vagn Holmboe;” in his initial venture into the quartet genre, he makes much of his infinity series (Uendelighedsrækken), which, according to reports, serializes melody, harmony, and rhythm in musical composition in the endlessly self-similar nature of the resulting musical material. The brief piece’s seven minutes of developing factorializations seemed to ponder, as would Mendelssohn later in the program, “Is it true?” Arguments ensued, sometimes becoming emphatic and assertive. At one point the cello launched an abortive fugal discussion before general agreement returned in the form of a 50s dance of death. Later, the first slashed out over accompanying pizzes. A Beethovenian cadence brought down the curtain on a work that played to the ensemble’s strengths of uniformity, unanimity, and poise.
Violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin succeeded less well in Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13 (Ist es Wahr?). Not so metaphysical as the name suggests, and posing no questions on the meaning of life, it rather quotes the opening notes of the composer’s lovesong, “Frage,” which asks:
Is it true? Is it true
that over there in the leafy walkway, you always
wait for me by the vine-draped wall?
Written by an 18-year-old Felix scant months after the death of Beethoven, and citing the last movement of Op. 135 string quartet “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?), it is often performed in pairing with a late quartet of that earlier master. Because Mendelssohn wrote it during a time in his life when hormones flowed dramatically, it rewards an open-hearted interpretation with more potent surgings than the restrained and sonically meager enlightenment take that the Danes delivered to my distant seat. The organ-like opening promised drama, but the players delivered dignity and probity instead, overlooking the deepest emotions. Their over-legato technique could have benefited from more variety of articulation and a more generous resort to grittiness when the writing demands more agonizing.
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 12 in E-flat, Major Op. 127, the first of his late ones, opens with a grand Maestoso which the quartet enrobed in broad soulfulness, projecting their biggest sound of the night. But as the large work unfolded, they stinted on the angularity of Beethoven’s crazy stops and starts, making the rough places decidedly too plain. When they did dig-in, intonation suffered, especially from the first. Perhaps if I heard the group at the much smaller and more resonant Maverick, where they are playing the same concert on Sunday, the presentation would convey more intensity, but in this outing Beethoven felt tame, notey, over-metric, yet strangely slurred withal.
To an encore of Carl Nielsen’s settings of three traditional Danish songs, Min Jesus lad mit hjerte fa, Scenk kun dit hoved du Blomst, and Tit er jeg (arranged by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen for the quartet and evocative of Britten’s “The Water is Wide”), they brought a revival-tent warmth and imploring advocacy. And let us say Amen.