Review: Danish String Quartet again provides an 'exquisitely polished' performance

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In its first appearance in Calgary about five years ago, the Danish String Quartet made an indelible impression with its polished performance of classical and modern works, all delivered with the most engaging musicality and consummate sense of ease.

That this previous appearance was fondly remembered by the Calgary Pro Musica audience was apparent on the return of the Quartet for a pair of concerts, each with different programs, that drew capacity audiences for both evenings.

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Over the years, between their appearances in Calgary, the Danish Quartet has grown in international reputation and stature. It is now one of the most booked ensembles of its type before the public. To give themselves an edge in this highly competitive market, the Quartet has cultivated its national identity through the presentation of arrangements of Danish (and other) folksongs.

While it might be tempting to dismiss this as a public relations gimmick, the arrangements, written for and by the members of the quartet, are highly sophisticated pieces of music. They offer modernist reflections upon ancient melodies that link present and past in an imaginative way. The arrangements are far from fluff.

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The second half of the second program was devoted entirely to these freshly minted miniatures, the most magical moment coming, perhaps, in the encore, an extended, very soft treatment of one of these songs that reached deep into the heart of it and into the emotions of the audience. Elsewhere there was much music based on the fiddling traditions of Scandinavia that showed some link with Celtic traditions more generally. This included some music for the Hardinger fiddle, a special type of violin native to the west coast of Norway and to a unique performing style associated with the instrument.

Across the two evenings, the quartet presented music from Henry Purcell from the 17th century to Thomas Ades in the 21st century. All the works were performed with the skill and refinement that marks the performances of this group. One of the highlights was the expressive account of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, a performance especially moving for its beautiful account of the elegiac slow movement and the rhythmic energy of the final movement.

Another striking moment in the first program came in the performance of Thomas Ades’s The Four Quarters, a work depicting the passage of time across four periods of a single day. The most remarkable movement here was the last, with its evoking an imaginary 25th hour in a day, represented in the music through the use of a rhythmic meter of 25/16. I know of no other piece with 25 beats in one bar. Throughout, one heard the most fascinating textures and musical figures, music by one of the most celebrated composers of our time.

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The quartet was just as convincing in the core quartet repertory as it is in modern, experimental works. The second program included Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3, a little-performed work I had never heard live, not even in over 20 years of attending the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Unusually for Haydn, it was the slow movement that was the most affecting part of the quartet, a harbinger of the great slow movements of his final symphonies.

Overall, the performance was exquisitely polished and balanced, the structural melody passed smoothly from instrument to instrument. In this, one had a sense of how the performers treat the individual voices (instruments) as constituent elements of the larger musical work. This differentiation between what is important and what is accompaniment was in contrast to the generalized musical scrubbing often encountered in less sophistical ensembles.

In the same spirit of wit and play found in the other movements of the Haydn quartet, the concerts also performed Shostakovich’s Seventh String Quartet, a pithy work of only 13 minutes that concentrates a great amount of musical content in a short span. A personal favourite, it was the best performance of it I have heard live.

Performances of this calibre are a treat for any audience, and they were much enjoyed on this occasion. The individual works were seasoned with brief comments from the different members of the group, often filled with touches of humour. The quartet takes performing very seriously and professionally – but themselves? Not so much. This was a remarkable event in Calgary Pro Musica’s season, a high moment in a year already filled with memorable evenings of chamber music.

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