Danish String Quartet: Music of Bach, Shostakovich and Beethoven, Playhouse, October 19, 2016.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing the young Danish Quartet knows that their playing comes from a different world than most string quartets. Their sound and blend are uniquely pure and beautiful, but it is their wonderful patience, sense of architecture, and always-present spirit and warmth, that most fully distinguishes them from other ensembles. With the Danish, one never notices technique: the music is fully internalized and ‘just unfolds’ with wonder and feeling, often finding serene and meditative corners. On their previous visit, the ensemble gave us a rewarding study of Beethoven, Shostakovich and the ‘art of the fugue’, combining the former’s exalted Op. 131 with the latter’s 9th.  This concert stayed in the same territory, pairing Beethoven’s Op. 127 with Shostakovich’s final Quartet No. 15.

There will always be debate on how to perform the last works of these two great composers – and perhaps there should be. There is a long tradition that suggests that both late Beethoven and later Shostakovich exhibit a certain severity of utterance and an uncompromising jaggedness, reflecting the volatile mental states of two geniuses torn between the struggle of this world and the conception of the next. Here the ‘beauty’ that comes forth can be seen as a distilled and fragmented one, intensely personal and free of romantic adornment, and poking its head out from a myriad of other feelings that occur in close proximity: defiance, anger, play, and so on. Nonetheless, the Danish Quartet don’t exactly see things this way: their approach is certainly probing, but it is almost the opposite of severe or acerbic. Spirit, cultivation, and beauty literally abound, underlining the music’s warm flow and suspension and often smoothing out its sharper, more viscerally-etched, postures and contrasts.

So how well does this approach stand up?  I deemed the concert of two years ago ‘fascinating’, but generally preferred the Shostakovich to the Beethoven. I thought the Danish’s approach found a type of subtle inward pain and a searching quality in the former that was revealing, yet I thought the Beethoven was too ‘soft’, allowing the austerity of the great opening fugue to colour the work too much (review). This time, the quartet’s playing was possibly even finer than last time (more clarity and tonal variety, and a bigger sound) yet my conclusion was exactly the same: the approach worked better for the Shostakovich 15th than the Beethoven 12th. Obviously, there is something about Beethoven that just can’t be played with; the Shostakovich was quite magnificent in its own way.

Comprised of six consecutive adagios, Shostakovich’s last quartet is structurally unique, and it is natural to see it as separated to some degree from his previous efforts in the genre. The premonition of death is the pervasive theme. A ghostly pallour in the strings can often be found, punctuated eventually by ‘shrieks’ and protesting soliloquies, only to end with the ‘whistle of the wind’. Nonetheless, trust the Danish Quartet to soften the implied programme, and probe the composition’s beauties almost objectively. They show that the work indeed can be linked to its predecessors, and encompasses as much a study of the composer’s life as his death.

The opening fugue had a tender melancholy in it, making passing reference to the flow and feeling in Beethoven’s Op. 131, but ultimately settling into the type of undulating motion and tonal tensions of the opening movement of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10. Everything moved forward with a feeling of transience -- ‘the earth moves on’ -- but pain as such was registered only implicitly, competing with the flow of life. The playing was pure and finely proportioned, conveying a deep sincerity and sense of inevitability, and sometimes a rustic hue. Time and again, we were moved to more meditative postures, the ensemble finding a stillness and suspension through a subtle control of dynamics and keen awareness of harmonies. I did not find the sequential solo crescendos (‘shrieks’) that followed either forbidding or bludgeoning; they were just strongly and objectively stated. Yet I did like the chordal reference to the Quartet No. 8, almost a ‘calling card’ of the pain within all his quartets. There was a great sense of longing in the various violin and viola soliloquies, and often more tenderness than defiance. As we proceeded, what was notable is how warm and human everything was, and the fifth Adagio actually brought out the same rich sense of struggle and noble determination that one finds in the last movement of Quartet No. 4. The brief closing movement was as it should be: ethereal, set in the mists, with the whistle of the wind given a beautiful gossamer-like treatment. This interpretation was most satisfying emotionally: it is easy to paint the work with the veneer of death, but the Danish Quartet really found a way to convey the composer’s life as a noble, determined struggle, full of human feeling, even with the inevitable outcome lying in waiting.

Beethoven’s Quartet No. 12 can be seen to have many sharp edges and abrupt dramatic contrasts too, but the Danish’s beautifully poised and contemplative performance must be the most listener-friendly reading I have ever encountered. After introducing the concert through a brief fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, the strong majestic chords from the quartet took over attacca, launching a beautifully patient treatment of the opening Allegro. At deliberate tempos, the sense of inner dialogue was stunning.  The spirit was always lyrical, focusing on the gentler ebb-and-flow in the movement and seldom registering any ‘grating’ moments at all.  This lyrical dimension was taken even further in a very deeply felt Adagio, which had long lines and much warm shaping, and registered a unique sadness. The chording and pizzicato towards the end seemed to indicate that Schubert’s great String Quintet was the underlying model, although the ‘crazy dance’ towards the end might have fit either composer. The warmth and frolic of the Scherzando then took things back in another direction: to the Razumovsky Quartets, the movement emerging as sort of a cousin to the Scherzo of Op. 59, No. 1. The finale was full of energy, warmth of spirit and rustic allusions, and moved us solidly into the Romantic era. Its buoyancy and rhythmic drive at the finish made me think fleetingly of Dvorak. 

Overall, another fascinating trip from the Danish Quartet -- and so coherently and beautifully executed. Nonetheless, unlike the Shostakovich, the Beethoven again did not seem to hit the composer square on. I think the approach was just too smooth and cultivated to capture either the myriad of conflicting forces and tensions operating on the composer in his last years or the raw iron in his response to these realities. But ‘hats off’ to any young ensemble that can think and play like this: it is truly remarkable.  I was also touched by the little compendium of Danish folk melodies that served as the encore, giving us a taste of their latest CD, ‘Wood Works’.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016