Review: Danish String Quartet

Nov. 8, University of Richmond

The season is still young and some highly promising artists and programs are yet to come our way; but it’s going to be hard to top the performance the Danish String Quartet gave in Camp Concert Hall of the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center.

The Danes produced a robust sound at near-orchestral scale, often recalling the Guarneri Quartet at its peak. That sound also was vividly detailed and high-contrast, presenting listeners with what amounted to an aural X-ray.

The quartet’s members – violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Frederik Schøyen Sjölin – were distinct, and distinctive, voices, brightly illuminating every strand of the music they played. Every accent, grade of dynamics and tonal and textural nuance came through with almost pointillistic clarity. That clarity never turned clinical, thanks to the musicians’ skill at making their parts add up to animated musical conversations.

It was an ideal sound and interpretive stance for the works that the group essayed: Two of the most exploratory string quartets of the classical period – Haydn’s Quartet in C major, Op. 20, No. 2, and Beethoven’s Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (the first of his three “Razumovsky” quartets) – and “10 Preludes for String Quartet,” a wide-ranging traversal of string techniques and tonalities by the contemporary Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen.

All three works challenge listeners as well as performers. Haydn, writing in 1771, reintroduced baroque counterpoint and fugue, complicating the melodic flow and jovial spirit of the early classical (“rococo”) style that had prevailed in the mid-18th century and making the quartet idiom a full interaction among instrumental parts. Beethoven, a generation later, stretched classical style and structure to accommodate a more complex form and less straightforward expressive language that anticipated the works of 19th-century romantics and planted some seeds of modernism. Abrahamsen synthesized two-plus centuries of musical style and instrumental technique in a succession of wildly contrasting miniatures.

A lot to absorb in a single program.

The Danish String Quartet hardly minimized or smoothed over these musical challenges, but made a compelling experience of them. The group’s treatment of the extraordinary capriccio at the heart of the Haydn quartet, an aria confronted repeatedly by portentous recitatives, and of the adagio of the Beethoven quartet, whose yearning tune grows to a length and emotional complexity later heard in Mahler, were thoroughly absorbing, and their work in more up-tempo or high-tension passages was thrilling.

Abrahamsen’s preludes brought to mind the quip by Buell Cobb, the scholar of the shape-note hymns of “The Sacred Harp,” that he would cross the country to sing them but wouldn’t cross the street to hear others sing them.

The Danish composer (a friend and mentor of the quartet) produced a stylistically and technically all-encompassing set of string-quartet pieces, formidable technical exercises couched in musical episodes or “short stories” that test performers’ narrative and interpretative skills as well as their playing chops. These pieces, however, were a jarringly discontinuous listening experience, the principal satisfaction of which was hearing them played with the conviction and spontaneity the Danes brought to them.

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