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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.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Concert Review: The Antic Disposition

The Danish String Quartet play Beethoven.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The members f the Danish String Quartet and their latest construction project.
Photo courtesy Kirshbaum Associates. 

Each summer, the Mostly Mozart Festival is dominated by the main stage orchestra offerings at David Geffen Hall. On Thursday evening, however, the ears of its audience were attuned to chamber music. This concert at Alice Tully Hall featured two of the great string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, as played by that excellent and fast-rising ensemble, the Danish String Quartet. 

In Beethoven’s catalogue, the quartets are milestones in terms of tracking the composer's musical development. The six quartets of Op. 18 find Beethoven experimenting with the constraints of form, working very much within the guidelines established by of fellow quartet composers Mozart and Haydn. The latter was was not only Beethoven’s teacher (for a brief period)  but is the father of the form. One may speculate that the string quartet’s rapid evolution was a necessity, to please the bottomless musical appetite of Haydn’s patron, the Prince Esterhazy. 

Op. 18 No. 2 is a sunny work, occupying the cheerful key of G Major and a genteel four-movement form. And yet it already shows Beethoven the spirited rebel. The long first movement presented itself in strict sonata form. The signing, singing slow movement was interrupted by a brief allegro, a fast frenzy that required nimble bowing and quick-step work from cello and viola. The courtly minuet was trashed, replaced  for a scrappy new from, the scherzo. This was a Beethoven invention, one that would become de rigeur for composers in the century that followed. The finale offered the twists and turns of a fairground ride led off by the cello and followed enthusiastically by the rest of the group.

The Danish Quartet responded to this work with enthusiasm and skill. Violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland twined and twinned, playing lines flawlessly and picking up each other’s cues with their ears. Cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjolin bowed, plucked and scraped, emphasizing Beethoven’snfindness for handing off the melody to the lower voice. Violist Asbjørn Nørgaard was the glue in the middle, holding the spiraling and dancing lines together but so much more than just a harmony voice.

The three quartets that Beethoven dedicated to Count Razumovsky (the Russian ambassador to Austria and Beethoven’s patron) are (on average) twice the length of the works in Op. 18. These are from the composer’s mature period, the years of earthshaking symphonies and the troubled, lone opera, Fidelio. They also find Beethoven gleefully experimenting with Slavic rhythms amd folk songs both in reference to the good Count’s nationalit and simply because (like much of the work in this and his late period) these ideas simply had not been done before.

Here the Danish Quartet offered “Razumovsky No. 1”, aka the Op. 59 Quartet in F Major. A careful listen revealed the same use of short motive and repetition that underpins the fifth and seventh symphonies, as a short staccato pattern was put through every imaginable iteration by the four players. Each quartet partner was treated equally: the viola and  second violin were as apt to break into song as the first or the cello. This democratic music-making was very much in the egalitarian, republican spirit of the composer himself.

The slow movement offered further, rich opportunities fm lyricism, with the notes soaring and skimming in the aether. Beethoven  was always better at writing for strings than for voices. The melodies here are very lyrical and songlike, an air or ensemble from some unimaginable cosmic opera. The finale was all gallop, skittering through dense passage-work with bows flying like a troika of horses being whipped through the snow. The folksomgs were for this listener not as easy to pinpoint out as he use of the Tsar’s coronation hymn in the “Razumovsky two”, but the results were inner own way, way just as compelling. 

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