IN: Reviews

A Concert in the Minor Mode


The Danish String Quartet’s impeccable musicianship and consummate ensemble playing make the music sound as if it were being played, not by four separate musicians, but by one person on one instrument. The four met as schoolchildren, and describe themselves as “a truly Scandinavian endeavor. Being relatively bearded,” they say, “we are often compared to the Vikings. However, we are pillaging the English coastline only occasionally.” The first and second violinists switched places several times in the concert.

The program was beautifully curated; the similarities and differences among the three pieces in the first half, in particular, were unmistakably on display without seeming at all forced.

The first half placed Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No. 3; alongside Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, and Britten’s 1933 Three Divertimenti in striking comopany. Both the Haydn and the Shostakovich are subdued and somewhat solemn, and both end pianissimo. And both the Britten and the Shostakovich demonstrate how to create form, tension, and direction without a strict framework based in rigorous tonality. Back-to-back, in the foursome’s hands they seemed to tell us,“This is how it’s done.”

Danish String Quartet at Ozawa Hall (Hilary Scott photo)

It is unusual to find a string quartet from the classical period in a minor key, but there are some to be found that have a somewhat gloomy affect. Composed during the composer’s sojourn of more than 20 years as court musician to the princely Esterházys, Haydn’s G-minor quartet comes down decidedly on the serious side. The palace of Eszterháza, while undeniably glorious, was built in a swamp. Damp, windy, and isolated, it caused—or encouraged, at least—bouts of illness, tedium, and depression among the musicians who lived there. The Danish quartet seems to have reached deep within itself to bring out the dark and somber nature of much of Haydn’s quartet. They emphasized the surprising lacunae of silence found within the body of the piece and the unusual soft volume that ends each of the individual movements. The sweetness and subdued cheer of the Trio, placed within the sedate Menuetto, was a pleasing surprise.

Shostakovich’s seventh is the shortest of his 15 string quartets and is, indeed, among the shortest of all his works. Like the Haydn, much of the material is subdued and serious, if not serene, and each one’s first three movements proceeds attacca to the next. The Danes handled the work’s solemnity and each of the transitions between movements with delicacy and adroitness, maintaining the tension throughout. The extended pizzicato passages in the first movement were impeccable.

Britten described his Three Divertimenti as a set of character pieces conceived to be “pleasing entertainment,” as the composer described them. The Danes cannily captured the feel of each as prescribed by its title: “March,” “Waltz,” and “Burlesque.”

The minor-key tone and the contemplative and sober mood continued through the second half. This is what it means, being in a string quartet, they seemed to tell us. And this is how an audience participates in a very intimate transaction. In Schubert’s heartbreaking String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, D 804, Op. 29, Rosamunde, the Danes captured the composer’s sadness and desolation.

A rousing encore (shouldn’t all encores be rousing?), came to us in a virtuoso, folk-like tune called Stormpolska by Ale Carr and DSQ.

Danish String Quartet: Frederik Øland, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violins; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello

Mary Fairchild lives in Rosendale, New York, after a long career as a host at WQXR, WNYC, WMHT (Schenectady), and WPLN (Nashville). She has for some 20 years been writing program notes for Vladimir Feltsman’s PianoSummer at New Paltz. Before being called by Kalliope, the Muse of Eloquence and of Writing About Music, she worked as a financial editor and manager of investor relations in Wall Street.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It sounds like it was a very fine performance. I question if the geographical location of the palace has anything at all to do with Haydn’s music. I expected to read about how Shostakovich’s complex relationship with the Soviet regime affected his music.

    Comment by Rich Carle — August 1, 2023 at 8:39 pm

  2. Regarding Rich Carle’s comment: I was happy, for once, to read a description of something by Shostakovich with no mention of the Soviet regime. It seems as if this composer’s music is rarely evaluated simply as music.

    Comment by George Hungerford — August 2, 2023 at 7:38 am

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