Saturday, March 3, 2018

Renewed Acquaintance with the Danish String Quartet

Towards the end of last month, 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 played in Herbst Theatre at a Shenson Chamber Series concert presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP); and I was delighted with the listening experience. What I had not realized at the time was that this was not my first encounter with the ensemble.

That “first contact” took place in the fall of 2013, when I had an opportunity to listen to a two-CD album of the complete string quartets (and one string quintet) of Carl Nielsen reissued by Dacapo. At that time Carl-Oscar Østerlind was the cellist. Otherwise, all the members then were the same as they are now, including the fact that the violinists alternated the leadership chair. This had also been my first contact with Nielsen’s chamber music for strings. My impressions were generally positive; but, apparently, they were not positive enough to leave a deep impression in memory.

At the Herbst recital Nielsen only appeared in the encore, a selection that was brief and not particularly representative. On the other hand a significant portion of the program was devoted to folk music from Nordic countries; and it was difficult to tell how much the musicians were playing from written-out arrangements and how much they were “jamming” over familiar themes. There was definitely a spontaneity that suggested the latter. However, because that sense of spontaneity also pervaded their readings of music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Béla Bartók, they could just as easily have been playing from notated score sheets.

courtesy of Universal Music

Fortunately, I have been able to revive the spirit of that portion of the program, thanks to the release this past September of Last Leaf by ECM New Series, the label with which the quartet now does all of its recording. In this case most of the tracks are identified as “traditional” with many modified by a specific nationality, such as “Danish” or “Swedish.” The track listing credits the ensemble with all arrangements; but that spirit of spontaneous “jamming” is again present. Furthermore, six of the sixteen tracks identify specific composers, suggesting that these may have been the notated arrangements, while the others could be played by ear. Regardless of the process behind the product, so to speak, listening to this music again on a recording turned out to be just as refreshing as listening to it in concert, perhaps even more so because much of the thematic material was more familiar. I also discovered that some of the concert selections, such as “Five Sheep, Four Goats,” came from an earlier ECM New Series album, Wood Works.

Further investigation revealed that the ensemble was also just as committed to living composers as they were to those of the recent and distant past. In May of 2016, ECM New Series released a recording of string quartets composed by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen. Fortunately, I had experienced the Adès selection, “Arcadiana,” thanks to another SFP chamber music recital, which took place this past April. On that occasion it was played by the Calder Quartet (violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bullock, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist Eric Byers); and, having experienced “first contact,” I enjoyed the opportunity of getting to know the piece better.

On the other hand both Nørgård and Abrahamsen provided new “first contact” listening experiences. I was particularly struck by their capacity to achieve expressiveness through brevity (a capacity shared with “Arcadiana”). With so much satisfaction from such a modest round of listening experiences, I find that I now have eager curiosity to find out what other directions the Danish String Quartet has followed in order to build up their repertoire.

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