in: Reviews

August 13, 2018

Danes Bat One Out of the Park

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Danish String Quartet (file photo)

The Danish Quartet, making a welcome return to Maverick Concerts in Woodstock on Sunday enlisted a pinch-hitter, cellist Bartholomew LaFollette, for its current U.S. tour. We’ve certainly heard substitute members of string quartets before. My own uncle, violinist Leonard Felberg, played at Maverick decades ago during his summer as temporary second violinist for the Berkshire Quartet, then in residence at Music Mountain. There was no explanation offered for the absence of cellist Fredrik Schoeyen Sjölin and I guess none was needed, as LaFollette played splendidly and seemed thoroughly integrated into the group’s interpretations, with one minor exception.

Last month, during the PianoSummer Festival at SUNY New Paltz, pianist Paul Ostrovsky treated us to a rare performance of Schubert’s first Piano Sonata. This must be my Summer of Firsts. On Sunday, the Danish Quartet offered Haydn’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 1, No. 1. Unlike some early “Haydn” quartets, the Op. 1 set is actually the composer’s own, but we don’t know in what order he wrote the six. Doesn’t matter. This was not an archeological exploration; number one certainly deserves a hearing. (And if it is actually the first string quartet written by anybody, it’s even more of a treat.) Haydn hadn’t settled on the definitive form of the classical sonata yet. This work has two minuets, surrounding the central adagio. It may not be the equal of the Op. 77 Quartets. But it’s very good music, modestly to splendidly inventive throughout. The pizzicatos in the first Minuet are pretty unusual for the period. And the gorgeous central sounded as though it could well have come from a much later period. The Danish Quartet gave it a supreme masterpiece treatment, with intense concentration, technical wizardry, and intense expressivity. If they didn’t quite make the case for the work’s supremacy, they certainly made it worth hearing.

The Danish Quartet first offered Hans Abrahamson’s String Quartet No. 1 (1973) 14 years ago, and as a brief spoken introduction informed us, the members still love to play it. I can understand why. It takes the form of a series of ten brief movements, designated Preludes. John F. Baker’s program notes made it easy to follow the sequence by describing each one just enough so that I could identify it. The first of the Preludes consists mostly of violent dissonance, but as the work progresses each movement is quite different from the others. And although Abrahamson was only 21 when he wrote the piece, it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Eventually, it concludes with a completely consonant movement, the last of its various surprises. I genuinely enjoyed Abramson’s first, and apparently so did the large audience.

We don’t need to discuss the virtues of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15, in A Minor, Op. 132, which is As Good As It Gets, one of the supreme masterworks in all of music. I was pleased immediately by the Danish Quartet’s sonority, which was rich and powerful but not semi-orchestral in nature. They executed with variety and expressivity throughout, bringing particularly crisp attacks to the opening movement and excellent contrasts in the second. The heart of the quartet comes in the long Molto adagio third movement, which the foursome read with intensity. Perhaps some a trifling bit of uncoordinated ensemble occurred here; they generally took the movement (appropriately) with minimal vibrato, but LaFollette used more than the others. I suspect this is something that only a listener who is being paid to observe a performance would notice, though. The Quartet ended in a fervent mood, setting seal to an extremely effective and successful afternoon.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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