Captivating reflections on Schubert in the Danish String Quartet’s Doppelgänger

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Sørensen: Danish String Quartet (Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen [violins], Asbjørn Nørgaard [viola], Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin [cello]) Presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 10.10.2021. (HS)

Danish Quartet (c) Caroline Bittencourt

Schubert – String Quartet No.15 in G major; ‘Der Doppelgänger’ from Schwanengesang (arr. Danish String Quartet)

Bent SørensenDoppelgänger

One unexpected result of staying at home during the worst of the pandemic might be a rich vein of new music, nurtured and hatched at a time when groups as inventive and capable as the Danish String Quartet could not travel the world to give performances and focused instead on what they might innovate.

The audience Sunday in Zellerbach Hall (in Cal Performances’ first month of live concerts in 18 months) listened raptly to the first fruits of the quartet’s latest endeavor. The Doppelgänger Project embraces a series of four pieces inspired by late chamber works by Franz Schubert, co-commissioned by the ensemble and the University of California, Berkeley’s performing arts presenter. Over the next two years we will hear each of these new works in concert along with the specific opus that led to it.

On Sunday, it was Schubert’s final work in the genre: the massive String Quartet No.15, rendered with jewel-like care by the Danish, followed after an interval by the aptly titled Doppelgänger. The group first played Danish composer Bent Sørensen’s piece on 11 September in Amsterdam, and they repeated it in concerts in Denmark. This was the U.S. premiere.

Sørensen won the $100,000 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2018 for his triple concerto, L’isola della Città. He structures this new piece along the broad fast-slow-scherzo-conclusion outlines of the Schubert quartet that inspired it, played in one go rather than a series of discrete movements. The program notes say there are some specific quotations from Schubert buried in the colorful music, but in practice they feel more like allusions than references.

The exploratory first movement starts off with a Schubert signature, a major chord that quickly segues into the minor mode. The work is peppered with writing that emulates familiar string quartet tropes – rhythmic repeated staccato chords underlying a melody, musical gestures tossed from one instrument to another, sonorities that create tension and release, even a couple of Grand Pauses – but the language is all Sørensen.

He is famous for using a lot of glissandos, and we get an example early on of full chords voiced by the whole quartet sliding woozily from one pitch to the next. One section does the same with high-lying duets that sound for all the world like a roomful of cats meowing. Humour is embedded in this language.

The kaleidoscope of rich harmonies, many of them worthy of the best Romantic-era composers, keeps the ear alert. Sometimes pungent, at other times puckish, the harmonic palette reaches an unexpected, shimmering beauty in an extended elegy in the final pages. It fades to a gentle finish before a final Romantic trope, the accented, forte final V-I harmonic cadence.

The Danish Quartet’s signature precision and clarity, combined with an understated understanding of phrasing and rhythmic vitality, made for a rewarding traversal of the longest quartet Schubert wrote. At 50 minutes, a lesser performance could tax a listener, but this group kept the audience silent and fidget-free.

The Andante moved along at just the right leisurely pace, without dragging, perfectly placing the shifting dynamics to create a mood both restful and soulful. The Scherzo followed with tremendous verve, and their command of the finale hustled along while breathing with a relaxed gentility.

The most affecting single moment of the afternoon, however, was the last work on the program – the quartet’s own arrangement of the Schubert song called ‘Doppelgänger’ (from the composer’s posthumous lieder collection, Schwanengesang). The arrangement of the spooky, deliberately paced song stressed the richness of the opening minor chords. The strings rendered them as sustained, almost organ-like, as opposed to the original piano’s tolling. In this environment the melody, played first in the violins, emerges with a silvery color instead of a baritone’s croon. Rather than soloist-and-accompanist, the quartet created a unified feel that sustained itself through a gorgeously hushed finish.

In April 2022, Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski presents her new quartet responding to Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ string quartet; the following season, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s commission shares the stage with the ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet. Thomas Adès completes the series in 2023–24 with a piece that reacts to the String Quintet in C major.

Harvey Steiman

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