Friday, October 13, 2017

Beethoven at the summit: Danish String Quartet sketches in a master's development in Ensemble Music Society concert

Writing out of profound deafness with all his sense of sound internalized, it's no wonder that Ludwig van Beethoven set even greater emphasis upon what new vistas were open to his imagination as he composed his late string quartets.
The Danish String Quartet made its  Indiana debut to start Ensemble Music's season. 

"Art demands of us all that we shall not stand still," he said to a friend in explanation of the new ground he explored in his B-flat quartet, op. 130. "You will find a new manner of part-writing, and thank God! there is less lack of imagination than before."

Ensemble Music Society's program annotator, the estimable Nicholas Johnson of Butler University, links this self-assessment to the Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131, with which the Danish String Quartet ended its concert Thursday evening at the Indiana History Center. Whichever of the two masterpieces Beethoven's statement applies to — he said at different times that each was his greatest work in this form — it could very well suit either.

The C-sharp minor quartet filled the entire second half of an outstanding concert. The work is demanding and still feels innovative. The four Danes gave a wonderful account of the sprawling, seven-movement composition.

Its first challenge is to put across the transfiguring music of the opening movement, a slow fugue. Fugues tend to direct the focus on the matching of voices that occur and recur in succession; they usually move at a pretty good clip, making the coordination of fugal conversation fairly straightforward. This piece's Adagio start requires that the impression of unity be sustained and steadily expressive in the long view. The Danish String Quartet achieved this impression without fail. Its phrasing was silken and steady at the predominant soft dynamic level.

The work proceeded with such well-honed insight supported by firm execution. After a suspenseful transition, the first fast movement maintained the group's fully supported phrasing as the dynamics took on more of the typical Beethoven variety, pushing toward the extremes of the spectrum. By the fourth movement, hairpin dynamic turns were adroitly managed, setting up the exuberant rush of the Presto movement, featuring a brisk theme the composer never seems to tire of. The Danes made sure the audience didn't tire of it, either. After a short Adagio, with the ensemble sporting its most glowing, chorale-like tone, the Allegro finale was given astonishingly forceful treatment, never veering out of control, settling down at the very end into slow measures that have more triumph than exhaustion about them.

As violist Asbjørn Nørgaard told the audience from the stage before a note was sounded, Beethoven got his start in the string-quartet medium as a newcomer to Vienna, where the classical model of the string quartet, however formidably established by Haydn and Mozart, was linked by social custom to entertainment music. That did not prevent the young composer from seeing how to individualize his first contributions to the genre: the six quartets of Op. 18.

The Danish String Quartet (other members: violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin) played two of them, starting with No. 2 in G major. Local music lovers had the opportunity to hear this work played just last week by the Indianapolis String Quartet. For all the merits of that performance by a newly constituted group, Thursday evening's showed the clear benefits of a regular ensemble bond. The excellence of the Danes was immediately apparent: the warm blend on long notes in the second movement, with abrupt contrasts in fast music smoothly handled. It was amazing to see that variation in vibrato served the music and confirmed the group's pinpoint intonation: the final chord of the second movement, with all four playing pianissimo, without vibrato, was magical.

In the Scherzo came another revelation: all decent quartets give precise value to rests, but this one had a way of making rests seem as rhythmically alive as the sounded notes. The rhythmic sweep of the entire movement was thus reinforced. In the finale, all dynamic contrasts were immediate and unanimous where indicated.

In No. 3 in in D major (with the violinists changing parts, as with America's Emerson), the contrasts of dreaminess and vigor are substantial, and both the tone and rhythmic acuity of the players were further confirmed. The majestic finale was given the light-hearted spirit the material suggests, but the movement takes on the "orchestral" texture often noted in Brahms' chamber music for strings. After all that coordinated energy, the Danes made the most of the  cute soft ending.

After such an exhibition of superior music-making on superior music, this listener was left considering the still unfathomable nature of genius, particularly that displayed in the C-sharp minor quartet. No response is adequate besides something puckish like: Beethoven — what a great composer! Too bad he isn't better known. That must be what immortality is for.