Experience the “rampaging energy” of one of the world’s most sought-after chamber ensembles, the Danish String Quartet. David Finckel, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center co-artistic director (appearing on our stage as well, on June 26), shared his experience of auditioning the Danish with Mercury News:
“My introduction to this group was as dramatic as one could have … we had this panel of judges sitting there, all incredible musicians; been through it all. And these guys walked out to play, and they looked like Scandinavian or Old West bandits. They were wearing vests and white shirts, and they had this wild, spiky blond hair. We looked at them and thought, ‘Wow, this is really off the wall.’ I think they started with Haydn and then they went to Beethoven, Op. 127, the slow movement, one of the most profound pieces. And they started to play it, and I looked down the length of this long table of judges; there wasn’t a pencil moving. They were all just sitting there, transfixed; one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.”
“…rampaging energy” – Alex Ross, The New Yorker
There’s no doubting the Danish String Quartet’s firmly-rooted position within the realm of classical music – “we are simply your friendly neighborhood string quartet,” the group writes on its website, “with above average amounts of beard” – but it’s their understanding of and respect for a different sort of social music, folk music, that’s helping this pioneering ensemble stand even taller. Their love of traditional Scandinavian folk, on exquisite display with their latest release, Wood Works (2014), is as vital to their on-stage presence as the quartet’s masterful, invigorating performances of works from the classical canon. Those new to the realm of roots and folk music – as well as those unfamiliar with the classical world – will both find inspiration and meaningful listening with this high-octane group of Brooklyn-styled savants.
Janáček String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”
Folk music from the Nordic countries – Intermission – Beethoven String Quartet No. 12, Op. 127
Frederik Øland, violin
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello
Embodying the quintessential elements of a chamber music ensemble, the Danish String Quartet has established a reputation for their integrated sound, impeccable intonation and judicious balance. With their technical and interpretive talents matched by an infectious joy for music-making and “rampaging energy,” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker) the quartet is in demand worldwide by concert and festival presenters alike. Since making their debut in 2002 at the Copenhagen Festival, the group of musical friends has demonstrated a passion for Scandinavian composers, who they frequently incorporate into adventurous contemporary programs, while also proving skilled and profound performers of the classical masters. In 2012 the New York Times selected the quartet’s concert as a highlight of the year, saying the performance featured “one of the most powerful renditions of Beethoven’s Opus 132 String Quartet that I’ve heard live or on a recording.” This scope of talent secured them a three-year appointment in the coveted Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two Program that began in the 2013-14 season. The quartet was also named as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist for 2013-15.
The Danish String Quartet’s 2015-16 season included a release of their debut disc on ECM Records, a first-time tour of China as well as summer performances at the Mostly Mozart Festival, Maverick Concerts, Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, Toronto Summer Music Festival, and Ottawa Chamberfest. International highlights included concerts in Berlin, Copenhagen, Glasgow, London, and a debut at the Louvre Museum in Paris. With increasing popularity, the Danish String Quartet is considered one of the most sought-after chamber ensembles in the world. Their repertoire is diverse, from Nielsen, Abrahamsen, Adès, Shostakovich to Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Haydn. Currently in their third season with the CMS Two program, they performed all four of the Nielsen String Quartets in the Rose Studio and the final concert of a six-concert Beethoven cycle at Alice Tully Hall. This past November the quartet launched their recording of Danish folk songs entitled Wood Works, released by the Dacapo label and distributed by Naxos, at SubCulture in New York. It was selected by NPR as one of the best classical albums of 2014 and the Quartet was featured on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert performing works from the highly acclaimed album.
In addition to their New York performances, the quartet’s robust North American schedule takes them to Ann Arbor, Seattle, Orange County, Santa Barbara, Phoenix, Buffalo, Durham, Humboldt, Cedar Falls, and Calgary this season, as well as two weeks of residency activities and performances at the University of California, Berkeley. The quartet will made their debut at the Savannah Music Festival in spring 2016. Last season the quartet presented the U.S. premiere of Danish composer Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s Quartet No. 7 “The Extinguishable” at the University of Chicago Presents series and subsequently performed the work in St. Paul, Santa Barbara, Pasadena, New Haven, Gainesville, Jacksonville, and Laramie. In addition to its commitment to highlighting Scandinavian composers, the Danish String Quartet derives great pleasure in traditional Scandinavian folk music.
The Danish String Quartet made their west coast debut in summer 2013 at Music@Menlo described by San Francisco Classical Voice as “… a concert of one ravishing performance after another, culminating in the Beethoven, weaving magic over the full house, which gave a genuine standing ovation to the quartet, not one of those half-hearted crouching applauses. No, this was very real, really loud, and more than well-deserved.” They returned to Menlo in 2014 to perform programs of Haydn and Beethoven quartets as part of a busy summer festival schedule that also included performances in Ireland, France, and at home in Denmark.
Since winning the Danish Radio P2 Chamber Music Competition in 2004, the quartet has been greatly desired throughout Denmark and in October 2015 they presented the ninth annual DSQ-Festival, a four-day event held in Copenhagen that brings together musical friends the quartet has met on its travels. In 2009 the Danish String Quartet won First Prize in the 11th London International String Quartet Competition, as well as four additional prizes from the same jury. This competition is now called the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition and the Danish String Quartet has performed at the famed hall on several occasions. They returned to Wigmore Hall in March 2015 to perform a program of Haydn and Shostakovich.
The Danish String Quartet was awarded First Prize in the Vagn Holmboe String Quartet Competition and the Charles Hennen International Chamber Music Competition in Holland and the Audience Prize in the Trondheim International String Quartet Competition in 2005. They were awarded the 2010 NORDMETALL-Ensemble Prize at the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival in Germany and, in 2011, received the prestigious Carl Nielsen Prize.
In 2006, the Danish String Quartet was Danish Radio’s Artist-in-Residence, giving them the opportunity to record all of Carl Nielsen’s string quartets in the Danish Radio Concert Hall, subsequently released to critical acclaim on the Dacapo label in 2007 and 2008. The New York Times review said “These Danish players have excelled in performances of works by Brahms, Mozart and Bartok in New York in recent years. But they play Nielsen’s quartets as if they owned them.” In 2012 the Danish String Quartet released an equally-acclaimed recording of Haydn and Brahms quartets on the German AVI-music label. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times said: “What makes the performance special is the maturity and calm of the playing, even during virtuosic passages that whisk by. This is music making of wonderful ease and naturalness…” They recorded works by Brahms and Fuchs with award-winning clarinettist Sebastian Manz at the Bayerische Rundfunk in Munich, released by AVI-music in 2014, and recently signed with ECM Records for future recording projects.
Violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard met as children at a music summer camp where they played both football and music together, eventually making the transition into a serious string quartet in their teens and studying at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of Music. In 2008 the three Danes were joined by Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin. The Danish String Quartet was primarily taught and mentored by Professor Tim Frederiksen and have participated in master classes with the Tokyo and Emerson String Quartets, Alasdair Tait, Paul Katz, Hugh Maguire, Levon Chilingirian, and Gábor Takács-Nagy.
“They could be grounded in their tone or mystical. They allowed time to stand still, and they could assume the pose of excitingly aggressive rockers. They did it all.” – Los Angeles Times
“They bring a freshness and energy plus a level of sheer accomplishment that I don’t ever remember hearing in these works.” – Gramophone
Human empathy is a hallmark of the music of Leoš Janáček, not only in his superb operas, where he makes us feel the torment of Jenufa or of the centuries-old Emilia Marty (in The Makropoulos Case), but even in the normally abstract musical world of the string quartet. His First String Quartet, written in 1923, is in part his musical response to Tolstoy’s story The Kreutzer Sonata, in which the married heroine is murdered by her husband out of his erroneous conviction that she has been seduced largely through the expressive powers of Beethoven’s music. In the story, Tolstoy seems to feel that the murder is justified. Janáček’s shock at Tolstoy’s implicit approval of violence toward women issued forth in his string quartet, written as a kind of protest.
His second and last quartet—indeed, his last completed work—also contains music inspired by intensely personal feelings. Janáček began the second quartet on January 29, 1928, immediately after completing the opera From the House of the Dead. He finished it on February 19, and the premiere was given by the Moravian Quartet the following September 11—but that was already a month after the composer’s death.
During the last decade of his life, Janáček received inspiration from a surprising source—or perhaps not so surprising, except in its manner and consequences. He became captivated by a young married woman named Kamila Stösslova, some thirty-eight years his junior. The Janáčeks and the Stössls became quite close; he wrote to her constantly, and her responses—warm, but never more than polite—kindled a psychological warmth that positively rejuvenated him. One after another he turned out some of his finest operas (Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropolous Affair, From the House of the Dead), the two string quartets, and a large amount of other instrumental music—a truly remarkable outpouring from a composer in his late sixties who had never before written with any special fluency. (Ironically, it was the relationship with Kamila that led to his death; when she and her son were visiting the composer at his summer retreat, the little boy got lost in the mountains. While hunting for him, Janáček caught the pneumonia that carried him off on August 12, 1928.)
Janáček originally intended to call his String Quartet No. 2 “Love Letters” as an evocation of his feelings for Kamila. (The change of name to “Intimate Letters” came about, as he explained in a letter to her, because “I don’t deliver my feelings to the tender mercies of fools.” At the same time, he was careful to get her permission for such a public acknowledgment of their relationship. He wrote, “She is willing because we both look to clearing ourselves of the charge of a relationship other than our purely spiritual one.”)
Given the programmatic nature of the work, and Janáček’s experience as a dramatic composer, it is no surprise that the four movements are entirely atypical of abstract string quartet forms. Tempo markings never last long, and each of the four movements passes through a series of moods, like a natural conversation.
The first movement begins with a rather gruff theme that Janáček called, “My impression when I saw you for the first time.” But he soon suggests an element of mystery with a viola theme (sul ponticello). These materials are constantly varied in a kind of dialogue. The second movement deals with the actual getting-acquainted, events that took place at a Moravian spa in 1917, beginning Adagio but becoming increasingly lively until a combining of the “masculine” theme from the first movement with a playful motif suggesting their pleasure in one another’s company.
The third movement, said Janáček in a letter, “is bright and carefree but dissolves into an apparition which resembles you.” And the last movement’s rondo is vigorous and elemental, filled with all the passion and intensity that the seventy-four year old composer could command in what proved to be his final—and perhaps most unusual—score.
Folk music is the music of all the small places. It is the local music, but as such it is also the music of everywhere and everyone. Like rivers, the melodies and dances have flowed slowly from region to region: Whenever a fiddler stumbled on a melody, he would play it and make it his own before passing it on. You don’t own a folk tune, you simply borrow it for a while.
For tonight’s program, we have borrowed and arranged a selection of tunes that are all very close to our hearts. We perform them as a string quartet, one of the most powerful musical vehicles we know of. The string quartet is a pure construct: four simple instruments made of wood. But in all its simplicity the string quartet is capable of expressing a myriad of colors, nuances and emotions – just like folk music. Our idea is to marry these two simple but powerful things; the folk music and the string quartet. Normally the string quartet has been reserved for the classical masters. Now we want to see what happens when we let the Nordic folk music flow through the wooden instruments of the string quartet.
Does it work? We hope so. And remember: We simply borrowed these tunes. They have already been returned.
– Danish String Quartet
Ludwig van Beethoven / 1770-1827 / String Quartet No. 12, Op. 127
On the surface, Opus 127 is the most “normal” of the late quartets. It is cast in the typical four movements, and these are comfortably arranged in the traditional tempos and types—fast, slow (with variations), scherzo, and finale. Yet none of the simple, cut-and-dried formulas so often applied to classical instrumental works explain this music satisfactorily; Beethoven has rethought it in fundamental ways. This, no doubt, is what so thoroughly confused and upset many early listeners. Although Beethoven is more than ever concerned with melody, even of the simplest, most hummable sort, and though he peppers his scores with performance directions (the general burden of which is “expressive and singing”), the lyricism to be found here has the kind of glorious abstract perfection of high Renaissance polyphony. Some of the formal elements that had hitherto been most important to Beethoven, such as dramatizing the move from one key to another (which helped make them easier to apprehend), are now replaced by an emphasis on the thing-in-itself: principal themes (and keys) are followed by secondary material with only the briefest of transitions, as if sheer opposition of keys and ideas is enough. At the same time, Beethoven is concerned to work out the long-range significance of tonalities, even of individual chords, with a powerful new logic.
The first movement begins with what sounds like an introduction (Maestoso) aiming toward C major immediately after stating the home E-flat; but it functions as the first phrase of the main theme, followed by a strongly contrasting lyrical second phrase. The Maestoso is harmonically straightforward, but Beethoven has set it up in such a way rhythmically as to make it difficult for the ear to parse beat and phrase. The lyrical phrase that follows, a singing sequential melody, characterizes most of the movement in the sheer vocal style of the writing for the four strings. The briefest of modulations brings us to G minor (this is unexpected, avoiding the “normal” dominant key of B-flat) for another, equally lyrical second theme. The Maestoso idea, now in G major, leads off the development, which works through contrapuntal treatments of the main lyrical theme before coming round to the Maestoso again, now in C (the key that was hinted at in the beginning and is now finally achieved). This soon leads into the recapitulation (omitting the Maestoso, beginning with the lyrical consequent phrase). Soon after this return there is found an ornamentally rewritten phrase that has always struck me as the source of much of Edward Elgar’s style—melodic elaboration combined with freely crossing voices to bring the different instruments into relief on consecutive beats of the measure; Elgar could have learned this essential aspect of his style in these four measures.
The Adagio is a rich and extended theme-and-variations movement in which, as so often in late Beethoven (and so seldom before) the theme itself seems to be a kind of elaboration in search of its original Idea, and Beethoven’s investigation of its possibilities gives both the lushest kind of enrichment and the most radical simplification. Also radical is his way of uniting the three tonalities—A-flat, E, and C-sharp minor—in which the different variations appear, with a last, condensed reference in the coda, cheek-by-jowl as a final summing up.
The Scherzo sets off from simple pizzicato tonic-and-dominant chords, but it moves so widely afield that this dance movement becomes the dramatic center of tension for the whole quartet. It is enormously long for a Scherzo; in that respect it is similar to the gigantic second movement of the Ninth Symphony, composed only a short time before. Here, as in the Ninth, the Scherzo begins with a fugal exposition, boldly combining genres that would then never have been connected. But in the quartet, the fugue is broken up into jerky little sections, as opposed to the large-scale simplicity of the Trio, which moves through a few closely related keys to land firmly on the dominant B-flat (for the first time in the whole quartet, really, since that B-flat was evaded in the first movement); this brings on the return to the disjunctions of the Scherzo. No sooner does that come to an end than Beethoven introduces one of his favorite jokes, suggesting that the whole huge Trio-and-Scherzo combination is going to come around yet another time; but here the incipient Trio breaks off into a few measures of silence, and the Scherzo cadence brings the movement to its close.
The Finale provides a conclusion of charm and wit, with a series of themes that could almost be folk tunes. The principal tune itself is introduced by the first violin; it contains one aberrant note that becomes very insistent. Three times in a row the violin offers a little turn, landing on a longer note. The first two times that longer note is A-flat, perfectly normal for a melody purporting to be in E-flat; the third time, the A-flat unaccountably becomes A natural, a note foreign to this key, and that small inconsistency sets up much of the activity of the movement, including the extraordinary coda, which goes into 6/8 time and presents a new view of the thematic material in C major, A-flat major, and E major (references to important tonal areas in earlier movements) before returning home in an amusing close.