The Danish String Quartet (Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and Frederik Øland, violins; Asbjorn Norgaard, viola; Fredrik Schoyen Sjölin, cello) purveyed a fascinating “Schubert sandwich” in Ozawa Hall on August 3rd, the first of a series of four concerts over the coming period. Each takes one of the last four string chamber music works by Schubert, generally regarded as his greatest works in the genre, and pairs it with a piece that the Danes have commissioned with the aim obtaining contemporary responses to Schubert’s last three string quartets (in A major, D Minor, and G Major) and the cello quintet in C Major.
The darkly dramatic D-Minor quartet nicknamed “Death and the Maiden,” after an earlier song, from which it drew some of the musical material, feels driven almost throughout. It is as harmonically daring, in terms of how far the key relationships stretch during its course of its nearly 45 minutes from the haunted key of D minor.
“Death and the Maiden” refers to a song that Schubert had composed in 1817, seven years before the quartet. The song sets a simple poem by Matthias Claudius, a dialogue between a young girl who asks Death to pass by without touching her; she is still young. Her part is, understandably agitated and nervous. The second part, sung by Death, is altogether gentle and tranquil. In soft, sustained words, he tells her that she will rest calmly in his arms.
For the quartet, Schubert takes only Death’s quiet, sustained music, and makes of it an elaborate set of variations that make up the slow movement. Sometimes it echoes the hushed expression of the song; other times it becomes wildly dramatic. The range of tempi and dynamics characterized by the song material in the slow (second) movement is also characteristic of the other three movements that have no song material. The performance by the Danish Sting Quartet absolutely made the most of this demanding score and its colors and sonorities.
Finnish composer Lotte Wennäkoski (b. 1970), who studied with Kaija Saariajo at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in the 1990s, responds without taking Schubert’s themes for melodic and harmonic play (as Schubert himself had done with his song), but makes a conversion that goes much farther afield. Indeed, in his introduction, cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjölin told the audience, “If you have very good ears, you may hear references to Schubert’s quartet in this piece.” But Wennäkofski’s “timbral music” plays with color and sonority, only rarely hinting explicitly at the earlier score. Her Pige, or “Girl,” evokes the maiden of the Claudius poem. Because the maiden’s part of the song does not appear in Schubert’s quartet, she used the girl’s frightened outcries, though the composer’s commitment to silence makes the actual sounds of Schubert rarely audible in the open spaces of the piece. The second movement, Dactyl, refers to the namesake rhythms that run through the quartet, slowly in Death’s sung response to the girl in the song, rapidly at points in the rest of the quartet. Wennäkoski explained that she “couldn’t help seeing the motif he third movement, The Girl and the Scrapbook, also as the never-ending image of a dirty old man desiring the young female body…” This movement becomes a medley (though not to overt) of both parts of Schubert’s song, a Sibelius song about a young woman betrayed by her lover, and a Cindy Lauper song, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Pige ends with the upper strings carrying material from Schubert’s quartet upward, while the cellist—mysteriously—tears a piece of paper in half and lets it fall to the floor.
The evening closed with a rounding-out to Schubert: an arrangement for string quartet of the fundamental song of the evening.
The extraordinary playing, both of the Schubert and its funhouse-mirror image brought an insistent demand for more. The obliging foursome’s Danish folk song arrangement, “Four Sheep and Five Goats,” carried us sweetly home.