Danish Quartet (Frederick Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorenson violins, Asbjorn Norgaard, viola, Frederik Schoyen Sjolin, cello) Works by Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Beethoven, Vancouver Playhouse, October 19, 2014.

There have been four quartets that have borne the national title, The Danish Quartet.  Having been together now for over a decade, this group has now graduated from 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 that we often hear.  The Fugue was given a balanced, patient exposition, notable for its firmness and warmth. 

How would this approach work in the two bigger works: the Shostakovich 9th Quartet and the epic Beethoven, Op. 131?  Well, it was 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, an ominous flow sending us off, the tremolos suspending us in a way 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 one got more of a feeling of intellectual delight than something particularly bizarre or satirical.  The fugue appears in the finale where, at the beginning, the ensemble was seemingly able to touch some of the inner complexity of the composer’s feelings. Its later development, sensibly paced, also seemed to suggest something 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.  I think some would miss this.  But we have revised our view of the composer once before, and the jaggedness and immediacy that we now 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 the greatest musical experiences that we can have. The Danish Quartet developed the fugue so 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 the way they developed the work confusing.  Virtually everything that followed the fugue was also cultivated and restrained, maintaining a similar emotional temperature.  The stark boldness in this writing, its frequent risk-taking in both tempo and dynamics, never really took hold to transport us to different places.  It was almost as if the ensemble believed that if it pushed strongly into the more aggressive, jagged regions, it would somehow diminish the sacredness of the initial fugue.

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 Quartet 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 as such.  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 here but, overall, the performance did not build very well. I think it was simply too smooth and refined to capture a sense of struggle in the work, its range of emotional postures or, for that matter, all the moment-to-moment variation in the ‘dialogue’ between the individual voices. But I have only heard this once – and the experience had its own particular fascination.  Interestingly, I had none of these concerns in the ensemble’s BBC performance of Op. 132 a few years ago. The Danish Quartet is clearly a very thoughtful and distinctive young ensemble and must be watched with great interest.  And they really make you work at a concert!    


© Geoffrey Newman 2014