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Last Leaf - Traditional Nordic Folk Tunes
Danish String Quartet (Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, Frederik Øland (violins); Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola), Fredrik Sjölin (cello))
rec 2017, Kirsten Kjær Museum, Frøstrup, Denmark
Reviewed as a 16-Bit Download
ECM NEW SERIES 2550 [48:07]

Given the rigour associated with the greatest string quartet ensembles of the last century (eg think Busch, Amadeus, Végh, Borodin et al) one suspects it must have been both emotionally and physically draining churning out, night after night, top notch performances of imposing masterpieces such as Beethoven Op 130, Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’, Shostakovich No 15, and the like. One wonders how, or even if, they let their hair down afterwards, given the psychological and physical toll their performances must have taken. The current generation of String Quartets, charged with upholding the intellectual and spiritual values of this sacred repertoire have, of course, been born into an utterly different world. I’m generalising of course, but they do on the whole seem more ‘unbuttoned’; maintaining extraordinary standards of performance, but finding a way to have fun and crucially, in the process, attracting (and keeping) younger audiences. One group at the forefront of this phenomenon is the Danish String Quartet (DSQ). It has already put down the reference version of the Nielsen quartets for Dacapo and made some stunning discs of contemporary repertoire, both for that label and more recently for ECM.

On Last Leaf the DSQ continues to harvest the fruit first plucked on their superb 2014 Wood Works album (Dacapo 8.226081). Essentially they started playing beautifully wrought arrangements of jigs, reels, polskas and laments from the Nordic world as delightful ‘dessert’ encores after concerts of more serious classical repertoire; while the tone of Wood Works was often joyful, an air of melancholy seems to pervade its successor. The first notes we hear are not string notes at all but the sound of a harmonium playing an old hymn tune – immediately evoking the musty atmosphere of some ancient rural Danish church. Despair not o heart is an old Lutheran chorale associated with funerals in Northern Europe; this elides seamlessly into a beautiful, sad folk fantasy, composed by the quartet’s cellist Fredrik Sjölin, seemingly built on the chorale’s foundations, which after a further three minutes transforms into a delicious Swedish polska, all foot-tapping and jolly. This initial sequence gives a good idea of where this journey is going to take us. The DSQ has collectively provided a superb note which doesn’t just address the expressive aims of the project, but details the story behind each of the sixteen tracks. The album moves from death to birth and back again, addressing both the sunshine and the shadows of life as it proceeds. As the note emphasises, folk music by definition provides a crucial social function, to bring people together to dance in the good times and to reflect and perhaps mourn in the bad.

Understanding this context seems to be vital in making critical sense of this disc. It’s quite impossible to be anything other than deeply impressed with the standards of playing, arrangement and recording which are utterly beyond reproach. The sound is rich, superbly balanced, glowingly coloured and varied, all the more so when judicious contributions from harmonium, piano, glockenspiel and double-bass (all played by members of the quartet) are thrown into the mix. I have read a couple of reviews that identify the sheen of the playing as a kind of problem - the implication being that it’s almost too perfect and sanitised. Isn’t part of the essence of folk its spontaneity? Should good folk not be ‘rough around the edges’? Does this kind of smooth performance somehow undermine the authenticity of the music?

At the end of the day such questions may be valid, but in my view the justifications the DSQ provides (in their words as well as their playing) triumphantly vindicate their approach. Over the last decade I’ve developed a real affection and respect for the English folk group The Unthanks. They can do ‘raw’ perfectly well, but the gleaming arrangements of their repertoire on disc, their stratospheric performance and production values and the honesty and integrity of their artistic vision tap into exactly the same well that the DSQ is sampling here. Ultimately this is about preserving traditions which need preserving in a world that’s changing all too rapidly. And perhaps re-interpretation reinforces the possibility of preservation

The notes refer to the fact that the social functions of the music were refined over time, so it became the norm for accomplished fiddlers to tailor and arrange the tunes for listening rather than dancing. The waltz tune Tjønneblomen is a superb example – it encompasses a broad emotional range, and the brilliant playing and production absolutely maximises one’s listening experience and subsequent psychological reaction. A similar point could be made about the quasi-polska Æ Rømeser. This is followed by a tiny intermezzo again supplied by Sjölin which even seems to suggest the harmonic realms of minimalism before launching into the rapid foot-tapping jig Shine you no more - another thrilling home-made confection courtesy of DSQ violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen.

A highlight for me is the treatment of the perhaps more familiar Unst Boat Song. As the note perceptively states, this song of supplication could have been offered to the Gods both by sailors negotiating the challenges of the North Sea and by their wives waiting in anguish on the Shetland shores. The DSQ takes the latter path; the increase in intensity towards its end is unforgettable. The disc takes its leave most aptly with the luminous yet melancholy beauty of the funeral melody Now Found Is The Fairest Of Roses, familiar to Danes as a Christmas tune, the final link in the chain of death and nativity.

The commitment of all involved in bringing this new DSQ project into the world is worthy of the highest praise; indeed the album convincingly matches the considerable aesthetic demands of the ECM label. The physical product, as is customary from this source, is a thing to be cherished for sure, but now that the label has (I suspect reluctantly) accepted market forces I can only imagine it will rapidly become one of its best performing streams. Although Wood Works was released on Dacapo, it was a ‘hit’ commercially. Last Leaf deserves similar success. I do hope that those who enjoy what they may view as more serious quartet fare will sample this. This brief clip introduces the group and the music. This album will definitely be accompanying the family on our annual drive north to Orkney next summer.

Richard Hanlon

trad.: Despair Not, O Heart [1:21]
Fredrik SJÖLIN (b.1982): Shore [2:50]
Trad (Swedish).: Polska From Dorotea [3:03]
Gjermund HAUGEN (1914-1976): Tjønneblomen [3:51]
trad.(Danish): Minuet No. 60 [2:39]
trad.(Danish): Æ Rømeser [4:02]
Fredrik SJÖLIN: Intermezzo [1:23]
Rune Tonsgaard SØRENSEN (b.1983): Shine You No More [3:38]
trad (Danish).: Drømte mig en drøm [3:45]
trad (Faroese).: Stædelil [2:44]
Fredrik SJÖLIN: Naja's Waltz [3:19]
trad (Shetland).: Unst Boat Song [4:47]
Eva SÆTHER (b. unknown): Fastän [2:43]
trad (Danish).: Hur var du i aftes så sildig [2:00]
trad.(Danish): The Dromer [3:01]
trad.: Now Found Is The Fairest Of Roses [3:01]



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