Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Delightful Danish Debut

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the Danish String Quartet, consisting of violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, who shared the leadership chair, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, made its San Francisco debut. They performed in the second of the four concerts in this season’s Shenson Chamber Series presented annually by San Francisco Performances. The program was framed by two string quartets separated by almost exactly a century, each by a composer who made significant strides in advancing the genre. Between these two major “historical” offerings, they presented selections of folk music from Nordic countries, presumably in their own arrangements.

Those significant composers who spanned that aforementioned century were, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven and Béla Bartók. The program began with Bartók’s first (Opus 7) string quartet, which he completed in January of 1909. The second half was then devoted to the first (in F major) of the three Opus 59 quartets that the composer wrote in 1806 for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky. These are the sorts of selections that a string quartet invokes to establish its credentials, particularly when making a debut appearance. By the end of the evening there was no questioning that this was an ensemble with a solid command of both the technical and the expressive.

However, because of the overall structure of the program, Nørgaard introduced the evening by noting that all of the selections were rooted in folk traditions. Bartók made his first sketches for his quartet in 1907; but he did not complete it until after his field studies of folk melodies, which he conducted with his colleague Zoltán Kodály. Beethoven, on the other hand, appealed to Razumovsky’s nationality by inserting Russian themes into all three of the Opus 59 quartets.

In many ways Bartók’s experiences are more interesting in that one can almost draw a line at the point where the composer broke with nineteenth-century tradition in favor of the folk sources he had been collecting. Indeed, his decision to open with a fugue could easily be interpreted as a latter-day reflection on the fugues Beethoven wrote to begin two of his late quartets, Opus 131 in C-sharp minor and Opus 132 in A minor. However, by the time the quartet has advanced to its second movement, one can sense Bartók’s feelings that he had had enough of traditional forms. (Beethoven was similarly not that all pleased with such forms in both of those two quartets that begin with fugues.) By the time Bartók had begun his quartet’s final movement, he was well equipped to explore new territory; and the results of his field studies provided him with a compass for orientation.

Fortunately, the Danish String Quartet did not perform this music as if it were a history lesson. Nevertheless, one could say that their sensitivity to the composer’s technique provided an informed reflection of his mindset. Thus, the final movement was performed with what might be called a definitive sense of arrival, settling into a new rhetoric and enthusiastically exploring where that rhetoric might lead the underlying language of string quartet music.

This made for an excellent parallel with the F major Opus 59 quartet. Here, again, Beethoven does not introduce his “folk reference” until the final movement. Mind you, he was not about to sacrifice his long-standing commitment to formal architecture; but, at the same time, he used his Russian theme as orientation for exploring new approaches to rhetoric. In would be both unfair and inaccurate to say that the Danes performed their Beethoven as a parallel to their Bartók, but they performed both quartets in a way that drew attention to how each composer found his own way to explore a new domain.

Like many (most?) in the audience, I was unfamiliar with the folk sources presented between the Bartók and Beethoven selections. Nevertheless, there was a clear sense that the Quartet members were playing for the joy of making music (jamming?) together, rather than interpreting marks on score pages. If the music was unfamiliar, the spirit behind that music could still work its magic, bringing a personable atmosphere to a chamber music setting in which character tends to be more on the formal side. That spirit was also present through the encore selection of music by the only named Danish composer of the evening, Carl Nielsen. The selection was described as a song; but it had all the trappings of a Lutheran hymn in four voices, closing of an evening of impressive insights with a calm sense of quietude.

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