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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Concert Review: Famous Last Words

The Danish String Quartet at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Layabouts: the Danish String Quartet defy gravity. Photo © ECM Records.
The last utterance by a major composer is not always profound. But in the case of Dmitri Shostakovich and Franz Schubert, their final works are pinnacles of the chamber music repertory. Both of these valedictory compositions were programmed for Wednesday night's concert by the Danish String Quartet, who brought their clean-limbed, slightly astringent approach to chamber music to Carnegie Hall's subterranean Zankel Hall.

Shostakovich used the quartet form as a forum for experimentation. His String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor is one of his strangest: six slow movements played attacca. It opened with a droning Elegy, with long note values built and carefully layered. The voices rose in mourning, whether for the state of the composer's failing health or for the more existential anguish of the 20th century. In late Shostakovich, it is sometimes difficult to tell.

Frederik Øland's violin led the transition into the second movement, which rose in an anguished crescendo before the four players let their instruments embark on a waltz. Here, each instrument engaged in a series of continuous, keening shrieks that yielded to grim, scraped chords, an unsettling and unrelenting effect. Mr. Øland was at the center of the third movement, a short Intermezzo that was basically a cadenza with a few spartan chords.

The Nocturne followed, with second violin Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard lifting their instruments' voices in a sad lament. The fifth was a dour funeral march, with one unsure whether Shostakovich was serious or engaging in another of his grim parodies. Mr. Øland and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin each took a blurry, virtuosic cadenza, with the blizzard of notes from each instrument cutting through the silence like an icy wind. The final movement, shot through with faint reminiscences from the slow, static opening, eventually died away into silence.

Schubert's Quintet in C for two violins, viola and a pair of cellists, is among his most popular works, programmed whenever a quartet can lay hands on an extra cellist who can play at a high level. Here, the Danes chose cellist Torleif Thedéen, who added warm, singing tone as his instrument engaged in dialogue with Mr. Sjölin's. The long opening movement was played with warmth, a languid river of sound that came across as pastoral, a celebration of melody even as Schubert's own life prepared for its too early end.

The slow movement was profound, but sounded positively peppy after the frozen stasis of the Shostakovich work. The Danish players brought energy and even anger to the middle section of this movement, with a forceful bowing approach that captured the stormy nature of this music before the slow-flowing first theme made its reappearance. The Scherzo came as a welcome relief, with its cheerful peasant dance reminding one that all was not lost in the world.

The final movement of this Quintet is its shortest: an exuberant Hungarian dance with its main theme traded between the five instruments. The playes brought this movement to a bold and enthusiastic close, and if their playing lacked the native Central European quality that is usually heard in this music, it compensated with probing intellect and pin-point accuracy. The Quartet came back with Mr. Thedéen, who sat tacit for the encore: "Underlige aftenlufte", a warm and enveloping song by Danish composer Carl Nielsen arranged by Mr. Sørensen.

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