Danish String Quartet opens UC Presents season with intense premiere

Sat Oct 11, 2014 at 2:54 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Danish String Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.
The Danish String Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.

The Danish String Quartet made a largely impressive Chicago debut with a nicely balanced program to open the University of Chicago Presents series Friday night at Mandel Hall.

The young chamber ensemble possesses a light, silvery sonority, one that proved eminently well suited to the opener, Haydn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, no. 5. The themes are superficially buoyant in this work, yet there is a prevailing sobriety of expression as the music is continually pulled into the minor.

The slender tone and slight astringency of the Danish Quartet’s sound added to the performance’s period feel, with a deft, gracious sensibility in the opening movement. The Adagio was particularly fine, with the drama manifest yet kept properly in scale, as first violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen wove graceful arabesques above his colleagues. The pianissimo dynamics were closely observed in the fugal finale, light off the bow, with the sudden jump to fortissimo making firm impact.

The Danish players brought a welcome bit of adventurous programming to Hyde Park Friday night with the String Quartet No. 7 of their compatriot Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen, a work being heard in its U.S. premiere.

The work is titled “The Extinguishable,” a mordant riff on Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (“The Inextinguishable”), reflecting the fact that both Olesen and the Danish Quartet won the Carl Nielsen Prize. But it also points to Olesen’s starkly differing life philosophy than that of their country’s most celebrated composer, as pointed out in the verbal introduction by violist Asbjørn Nørgaard (more user-friendly than Olesen’s rather impenetrable program note).

It was Carl Nielsen’s credo that “Music, like life, is inextinguishable”; yet for the more pessimistic Olesen, all temporal things have a short shelf life and both music and life are all too extinguishable.

The Danish composer’s Seventh Quartet, cast in a single movement of 23 minutes, has a manifest sense of raging at the fading light. The work is launched with a march-like two-note cello theme, a kind of fatum motif that recurs at key points in the music. The other instruments play quiet, unsettled high harmonics. As the cello motif grows more insistent, the other players segue into agitated fragments, conveying a violent sense of struggle against dark, implacable forces.

The malign theme returns as if quelled, and a innocent folk-like tune is played softly as if heard from a distance. A passage of crunched harmonics and edgy music ensues with the innocent theme emerging strange and distorted in portamento slides. The cello theme returns and the violins entwine around it in very high notes like ethereal sonic tenrdrills leading to a somewhat abrupt coda.

Olesen’s quartet is an intense ride and shows a confident and distinctive voice, though I feel the composer loses the thread somewhat in the final third of this work with too much repetition of his material. Still, this is difficult and demanding music to tackle and was played to the hilt by the Danish quartet members who were warmly applauded by the adventurous Mandel Hall audience.

Published posthumously after Schubert’s death, the Quartet in G major, D.887. made an apt closer after Olesen’s life-and-death musings. Schubert’s final essay in the genre is his largest at 45 minutes, and the Danish musicians were in synch with the late style in a well-paced performance.

Schubert’s lyric elegance was gracefully assayed and the major-minor contrasts of the opening movement and agitated tremolos of the ensuing Andante aptly jarring in impact. Still, the performance overall proved less polished and technically secure than in the preceding works, with repeated wayward intonation from violinist Sorensen.

An encore of the tuneful Sonderho Bridal Trilogy Part II from the Danish Quartet’s new CD of Scandinavian folk music made a fine apertif to a largely impressive evening of music by the personable young Danes.

The next event in the University of Chicago Presents series is the Pacifica Quartet 3 p.m., Sunday at the Logan Center. The program will include Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor, Op.80, Beethoven’s Quartet in E minor, Op, 59, no. 2, and the U.S. premiere of Shulamit Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu/

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