The vitality of the classical music world is dependent on a continual interchange of traditions and insights. So while UC San Diego’s distinguished music faculty member Steven Schick has been amazing Manhattan’s uptown new music aficionados with his prowess and invention as master percussionist in Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, four young Scandinavian musicians, the Danish String Quartet, dazzled UCSD’s ArtPower audience with their Friday (Jan. 31) concert in that university’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall.
In addition to their elegant, impassioned accounts of Debussy and Mendelssohn, the visiting Danes (spoiler alert–the cellist is actually Norwegian) offered a taste of both traditional and contemporary Danish music. They opened their program with Hans Abrahamsen’s First String Quartet, a slice of Nordic minimalism from 1973 that exchanges the typical four-movement string quartet format for a ten-movement variation cycle.
But rather than varying a theme or motif, Abrahamsen changes techniques and texture as he moves from one short segment to the next: discrete islands of sound a la György Kurtág, stark octave unisons, a pizzicato cello theme topped with feathery ostinatos, as well as a couple of vaguely neo-classical dance movements. The writing of the repsected but little-known Danish composer is spare and finely detailed, as was the quartet’s performance.[php snippet=1]
These four string players displayed an uncommonly homogeneous timbre, and their approach to phrasing, attacks and releases could not have been more minutely calibrated. The violinists and violist have been playing together since their teens, which no doubt accounts for a measure of their integration, and Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölen, who joined the quartet in 2008, has been thoroughtly initiated into the group’s sonic identity.
By subtly understating Debussy’s quieter moments in his G Minor String Quartet, Op. 10, the players endowed the assertive sections with even greater impact, although the ensemble never lacked propulsive drive or clear-eyed direction. In the second movement, violist Ashbjørn Nørgaard revealed a burred, throaty color for his solos, while first violinist Frederik Øland indulged dreamy flights with a slightly dark, covered sound atypical for first violinists, giving the Debussy welcome warmth.
Their probing, ruminative third movement was the evening’s highpoint for this listener—a mystical journey of transcendent beauty that was facilitated in part by the pristine acoustics of Prebys Concert Hall. I cannot imagine such a stunning movement happening in the barnlike environment of Mandeville Auditorium, where this string quartet series (now a part of ArtPower) managed to survive for decades.
For the Mendelssohn String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen took the first violin position, imbuing that role with a more muscular, steely line. Without sacrificing any of the equilibrium so carefully achieved in the first two works, the Danish String Quartet unleashed the composer’s fiery, ardent enthusiasm in a work completed at the age of 18. To its credit, the ensemble also stressed deeper thoughts in the various fugal sections and the complex structures of the finale.
For their encore, the players chose an arrangement of a traditional Danish wedding song, one that allowed first violinist Øland the opportunity to allude to the more rustic swells of a country fiddler. After such a serious program, the quartet could not have been more ingratiating or good-humored.
To read about Prof. Steven Schick in New York City: http://www.feastofmusic.com/feast_of_music/2014/01/steve-schick-astonishes-at-miller-theatre-.html