An Engrossing Concert by the Danish String Quartet


Haydn, Schnittke and Beethoven: Danish String Quartet (Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørenson [violins], Asbjørn Nørgaard [voila], and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 9.1.2017 (CS)

Haydn – String Quartet in D major Op.76 No.5
Schnittke – String Quartet No.3
Beethoven – String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 ‘Razumovsky’

Alfred Schnittke’s Third String Quartet is a bold musical statement which, through historic allusion and reinvention, both declares its composer’s artistic heritage and establishes his continuation of the traditions represented by such citations – principally, the string quartet tradition from Beethoven to Shostakovich.

Indeed, the quartet’s ambitions are acknowledged and crystallised in the words of renowned Schnittke scholar Hartmut Schick, who has described the work as ‘an autobiographical essay of Schnittke’s musical formation and the important stages of his work (with reference to key works like the Piano Quintet and the Second Violin Sonata); as an essay on the genre of the string quartet, namely on the tradition of the genre from Beethoven through Webern and Bartók up to Shostakovich … and finally as an essay on the history of Western polyphony from the 16th century through Beethoven’s highly chromatic counterpoint up to twelve-tone techniques and quartertone music, with Bach as the secret centre of everything’.

In this Wigmore Hall recital, the Danish String Quartet used Schnittke’s poly-stylistic juxtapositions to create sustained drama and tension; as episodes were reprised there was an ongoing sense of growth and dynamism.  Ironically, so well-defined and discrete were the individual textures, timbres and motivic statements that the DSQ, unintentionally I imagine, emphasised the somewhat rudimentary formal structures employed by Schnittke in which contrasting blocks – shuddering tremolandos, oscillating flutters – sit side-by-side: each persists until exhausted of purpose to be succeeded by a new sound-world.

For the Third Quartet is essentially a collage of quotations which weaves references to Orlando di Lasso’s Stabat Mater and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge with Shostakovich’s self-identifying D-S-C-H motto, among other recollected motifs.  The DSQ seemed to relish Schnittke’s enmeshing and amalgamating of the score’s multitude of musical quotations; one could almost feel the intellectual rigour involved in the clarification and articulation of the motifs.  But, there was no absence of feeling; indeed, this is a work which wears its emotions on its sleeve – and they are predominantly of a melancholy bent.

The opening, vibrato-less pronouncement of the thematic material borrowed from Lassus – rendered as dizzying glissandi and chromatic slides and snarls – was characteristic of the precise graphic sonorities conjured throughout by the DSQ.  They generated tremendous power as the dissonances accumulated, only to be ‘snapped’ by a penetrating pizzicato, and then reassembled.

The middle movement possessed the restlessness of an agitated Scherzo by Beethoven coloured with the wry melancholia of Shostakovich.  The climax of this movement was orchestral in scale, and as the grandeur became abrasiveness, edging towards apocalypse, the DSQ captured the explosive energy of the music while absolutely avoiding untidiness.  Strong middle voices propelled the trio-like section before the return of the Agitato in which first violinist Frederik Øland played with impressive power and authority.

The final Pesante was not merely ‘heavy’ in terms of the weight which seemed to make the opening chords wilt as if burdened by an unalleviated oppression, but was also beleaguered with dark brooding.  There was a strong sense of a fusing and distilling of all the multifarious material as these onerous chords moved through diverse timbres and rose to the highest realms; but motivic fragments were still recognisable – and one such, eerily, seemed to my ear to mimic a mistuned manipulation from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen! – as Shostakovich’s musical cryptogram asserted its dominance in the closing passage

The grim cheerlessness of this quartet might be depressing for some listeners, but the DSQ emphasised the work’s theatrical energy too, and they held the listener’s ear until that energy came, almost without warning, to a halt at the close.

Schnittke’s quartet was framed by two masterpieces of the Viennese Classical tradition.  Haydn’s Quartet in D Op.76 No.5 began with a lyrical and persuasive lilt; a sense of flowing simplicity and spaciousness was created by the slightest of elongations of the theme’s up-beat, by all players in turn.  Subsequent ‘variations’ introduced great contrasts and considerable drama; there was constant forward momentum and much nimble dexterity. The DSQ’s attentiveness to detail and the co-ordination of dynamic contrasts were impressive.  The lively, stylish coda made the recapitulated material sound fresh and free.

A broad vibrato, combined with an intense blend, imbued the hymn-like theme of the Largo with beautiful depth and richness – a lovely bed of sound from which Øland could foray and expand with pensive wistfulness.  Pianissimos were delicate as air; the first fiddle’s E-string melodicism shone; cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin added the slightest of hints of sorrow.  There were, however, some minor lapses of intonation, especially towards the end of the movement, and I’d have liked to have heard more from the middle voices to balance the strong upper line and bass.  The DSQ made the most of Haydn’s playful accents in the Trio of the Menuetto – there was a spontaneous air to the rhythmic arguments – while, after a slightly odd ‘glassiness’ to the tone at the start of the Finale: Presto, the movement acquired a slippery fluidity which whirled the quartet to a close.

The best came last, in the form of Beethoven’s daring, imaginative and innovative Op.59 No.2 – which saw Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørenson exchange roles.  In the opening Allegro, the DSQ moved with remarkable concordance and communication between passages of tense drama and episodes of fluid exchange.  Now the intonation was true, the phrasing careful and stylish, the dynamics superbly controlled. The players suggested that great thought had gone into their interpretation, but they conveyed the results of their reflections with lightness and vitality.  In the monumental Molto adagio the sweetest of pianissimos ensured that the subtlest gestures and motifs carried effortlessly, and as in the preceding movement the cello was a strong presence, guiding and supporting through the expansive form. The rhythmic complexities of the Allegretto were skipped through with lithe ease, while the romping Presto had plenty of bite and vigour.  The four players seemed to share a quasi-telepathic bond throughout Beethoven’s wonderful quartet – a bond which, it might not be too fanciful to suggest, might have stretched to include the composer himself.

It was thus a shame to puncture the perfection of the spirit conjured by the DSQ’s marvellous Beethoven with the rather nondescript arrangement of a twelfth-century song which served as a redundant encore.

Claire Seymour

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