Fascinating Experiments from the Danish Quartet

CanadaCanada Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Beethoven: Danish Quartet (Frederick Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorenson, violins; Asbjorn Norgaard, viola; Frederik Schoyen Sjolin, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, BC. 19.10.2014. (GN)

Mendelssohn: Capriccio and Fugue from Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

There have been four quartets that have assumed the national title, The Danish Quartet. Having been together now for over a decade, this group has now graduated from being the Young Danish Quartet to the unqualified title. My first encounter with them was, not surprisingly, from their excellent recordings of the complete Nielsen quartets (released on Dacapo), readings that showed them to have unusual insight and promise. As 2013-2015 BBC New Generation artists, they have engaged on a North American tour this year that includes upcoming concerts in New York and California. The theme for this concert was quite ingenious: to illustrate the development of the fugue from early romantic times to the present day.

 After all the eager and intense young string quartets that we see these days, listen to the Danish Quartet for even a minute and you are in a different world. This playing has an intrinsic inner peace, sensitivity and natural expressiveness. The sound, while smaller than some ensembles, always exudes cultivation even in the most vigorous passages, with an obvious warmth and inward beauty in the more lyrical episodes. Nothing seems forced or overdramatized; the expression always honours musical values.

 We witnessed all this right away in the opening Capriccio and Fugue from Mendelssohn’s Four Pieces for String Quartet: the lines smooth but precise, internal voices always clear, with perhaps a tenderness or a smile peeking its head around each corner. This was more the innocent, radiant Mendelssohn than the intense, insistent composer often heard. The Fugue was given a balanced, patient exposition, notable for its firmness and warmth.

 The Shostakovich 9th Quartet and the epic Beethoven, Op. 131 were quite a different experience. Ensembles hit the Shostakovich quartets pretty hard these days, often bringing out their sharpness and bitterness to an extreme. The Danish Quartet’s approach was softer and much less demonstrative: Shostakovich’s pain is here a subtle inward turmoil that hides in the depth of his soul, not something which courses out of his body. The ensemble’s inner probing began right away, with an ominous flow, and tremolos suspending us, somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. The second movement was possibly less severe than usual, shaped and rich, with considerable feeling. The famous jog-rhythms of the next (with the William Tell Overture quotation) were articulated beautifully, but with more intellectual delight than something particularly bizarre or satirical. At the beginning of the fugue in the finale, the ensemble was seemingly able to touch some of the inner complexity of the composer’s feelings. The later fugal development, sensibly paced, also seemed to suggest more than its usual raw exuberance, something more romantically conceived and far-reaching.

 So is this exactly what one wants from Shostakovich? I do think that there were new shades of the composer revealed. And I was quite impressed with the ensemble’s ability to retreat periodically to a very quiet, intimate world where time almost stands still. At the same time, this was not the Shostakovich with all the biting physicality, the maniacal little pushes in the rhythms and phrasing, and the raw emotional nerve ends. Some would miss this. But many listeners have revised their view of the composer, and the jaggedness and immediacy that some regard as the hallmark of Shostakovich’s expression need not be the only take on him. While not in the spirit of Russian readings, this was still pretty fascinating.

 Hearing the opening fugue of Beethoven, Op. 131 is of course one of life’s great musical experiences, and the Danish players developed the fugue naturally, mixing reserve with great cultivation and beauty. But there is clearly more to this piece than the fugue. The C-sharp minor Quartet is a masterpiece, cryptic as it is, because it contains ‘everything’: wonder, physicality, blunt protestation, harried frenzy, wit, as well as a remarkably sublime inner world. The ensemble’s playing was certainly accomplished throughout, but I found that their development confusing. Virtually everything that followed the fugue was also cultivated and restrained, maintaining a similar emotional temperature. The writing’s stark boldness and its frequent risk-taking in both tempo and dynamics, never really took hold to transport us to different places—as if the ensemble believed that the sacredness of the initial fugue would be diminished if they pushed strongly into the more aggressive, jagged regions.

My puzzle was luckily resolved by doing something I unfortunately almost never do: I started reading the Vancouver Recital Society’s voluminous program notes. The very opening item was an essay entitled “The Art of the Fugue,” and immediately, the puzzle was solved. The Danish ensemble seemingly developed this quartet with the same austere dignity as Bach’s masterpiece, stressing its inexorable motion and cumulative strength, rather than seeking strong dramatic contrasts between the individual variations . Of course, this reading did not pretend to be ‘authentic’; in fact, much of the playing had a warm and rounded romantic shaping. Nonetheless, to appreciate what this interpretation attempted does not mean that I particularly warmed to it. There were moments of real beauty and eloquence, but overall, the performance did not build very well. I think it was simply too smooth and refined to capture a sense of struggle, the range of emotional postures or, for that matter, all the sharp dialogue between the individual voices.  Still, it was another intriguing interpretative slant; it just may take some work and time to bring it to fruition. The Danish Quartet is clearly a very thoughtful and distinctive young ensemble and must be watched with great interest.

Geoffrey Newman

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