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Nielsen, Adès, Beethoven: The Danish String Quartet, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 21.2.2011 (RJ)


The name may sound familiar, but over the past 75 years there have been no fewer than four ensembles known as the Danish Quartet in the English speaking world. This particular one (called Den Danske Strygekwartet in their homeland) is the latest, and its four youthful members came to prominence in the early years of this millennium. They have won several awards, including First Prize in the Eleventh London International String Quartet Competition.


On their current tour of Britain they are championing the music of their compatriot, Carl Nielsen. Although Nielsen is best known as a symphonist over here, he composed a substantial amount of chamber music. The musicians introduced us to the Quartet in G minor Opus 13 he composed in his early twenties but revised extensively before publication in 1900. Given the date I fully expected to hear echoes of Brahms in the music, but it was clear from the start that Nielsen had already found his own individual voice by that time, and there was much to admire in the energy the Quartet displayed in the restless first movement. Its second theme was much more placid and after more displays of energy the movement ended peacefully. The slow movement was full of glorious harmonies and lyricism, interrupted by a sprightly dance-like trio before reverting to the original tempo. and mood of serenity. The four young men clearly relished playing the scherzo with its rustic feel, sudden changes of tempo and a trio which incorporated folk elements. It is said that Nielsen struggled to complete the finale and the direction allegro inquieto may describe his mood at the time, yet the return to the restlessness of the first movement tended to mask any feelings of anxiety and the rhythmic vigour displayed by the Quartet could not fail to impress. Incidentally, the Danish String Quartet, made a CD of all of Nielsen's quartets in 2008.


It was encouraging to see the music of Thomas Adès forms part of the Quartet's repertoire. Arcadiana was orginally a commission from the Endellion Quartet and is a set of seven miniatures, each an evocation of paradise, and calls for great virtuosity on the part of the players. The first, Venezia Notturna, abounded with eerie, nocturnal sounds and set the atmosphere for the pieces that followed with violist Asbojørn Nørgaard providing a gently rocking accompaniment for the ghostly violin duet between Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. The chiming harmonics of Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön included barely perceptible references to Mozart's operas, while Auf dem Wasser zu singen alternated pizzicato with bowed lines. The Tango Mortale was given a suitably dramatic and rhythmic performance which caught one's attention from the start. The succeeding Embarquement could not have offered a greater contrast; inspired by Watteau's painting The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera the music reflected the pastel colours of the picture and undercurrents of uncertainty. There was a strong Elgarian feel to Albion with its lush harmonies and sure-footedness, and the foursome played it with obvious affection before venturing into the underworld in Lethe where Fredrik Sjölin played his cello quietly above the wind-chime sounds of the other instruments to evoke the river of forgetfulness.


The second half of the recital was devoted to more conventional fare, if one can characterise Beethoven's String Quartet in E flat Opus 127 as conventional . The musicians gave a very satisfying performance with a sublime slow movement and a waspish scherzando vivace. For an encore they offered a display of what one might term Scandinavian ceilidh music, which shocked a few members of the audience but also served to underline the versatility of this lively and fresh-sounding ensemble.

Roger Jones


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