ABOUT THE ARTISTS
The members of the Danish String Quartet speak for themselves: “As a string quartet, we find ourselves at the core of the classical music world. On a daily basis we delve deeply into works by great masters such as Beethoven and Mozart, but we also play the occasional folk gig. Over the years we have had the opportunity to perform in major concert halls across the world. Sometimes a friendly reviewer has written nice things about us, too.
“We are three Danes and one Norwegian (the cellist), making this a truly Scandinavian endeavor. We are often joking about ourselves being modern Vikings. (Perhaps a touch more harmless than our ancestors — we are not pillaging cities or razing the English coastline!) We are simply your friendly neighborhood string quartet with above-average amounts of beard.
"The three of us met in the Danish countryside at an amazing summer camp for enthusiastic amateur musicians. Not yet teenagers, we were the youngest players, so we hung out all the time playing football and chamber music together. We became best friends. In 2001, Professor Tim Frederiksen of the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen got in touch with us and started coaching us on a regular basis. All of the sudden, at the ages of fifteen and sixteen, we were a serious string quartet. It all happened so fast that none of us seemed to notice the transition.
“Time passed and we grew up. We enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music, and our life as music students began. In 2008, Norwegian cellist Fredrik joined in, generously adding to the amount of beard and general Vikingness of the group. During his free time, Fredrik can be found fixing or sailing his sailboat somewhere in Scandinavia. The rest of us spend time with different hobbies—old cars, cooking, gaming, reading, playing, talking, and drinking.
“There is so much amazing music to delve into, and our hope is to continue our travels through life and music together as a quartet. We want to be able to share our music with as many people as possible. And of course, the ultimate goal is to beat Valentin Berlinsky’s world record [with the Borodin String Quartet] of 'most years in the same chamber music group.' We will reach that goal around 2060, and on that day we will host a giant feast — you shall all be invited!”
In 2009 the Danish String Quartet won first prize and four additional prizes in the eleventh London International String Quartet Competition. The quartet was announced NORDMETALL–Ensemble Prize Winner 2010 in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival in Germany. In 2012 the quartet was appointed to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two program.
The quartet was the Danish Radio Artist in Residence in 2006. The residency gave the quartet the opportunity to record all of Carl Nielsen’s string quartets in the Danish Radio Concert Hall. The recordings were hailed by the critics as extremely successful. Their 2012 album of works by Haydn and Brahms was called “a very fine recording” by The New York Times.
In 2011, the quartet was awarded the Carl Nielsen Prize, Denmark’s highest cultural award.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
Per Nørgård studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He has composed eight symphonies, six operas, two ballets, and a large number of chamber works. His early works are strongly influenced by Carl Nielsen, but under the tutelage of Vagn Holmboe he broke away from the Nordic influence and created his own innovative style. He invented the idea of the “infinity series,” a self-generating pattern like a fractal in geometry. Starting with one interval, say G-A, the next note would go one note below G to F, and the next note would go one note above A to B, and so forth.
The composer writes about his first string quartet: “I was fortunate to be able to compose for a cello-playing schoolmate and to accompany him on the piano. I discovered then the innumerable nuances of sound and playing varieties offered by just one bow, four strings, and five fingers. My first string quartet — Quartetto Breve — has a firm root in the Nordic tradition and is strongly inspired by Jean Sibelius and my teacher Vagn Holmboe.”
Mendelssohn was a precocious musical talent, composing and performing his own works at the age of nine. Young Mendelssohn was awed by the late string quartets of Beethoven. In his String Quartet in A Major, Op. 13, written in his teens, he pays tribute to Beethoven by incorporating some of his innovative compositional techniques.
The quartet starts with a slow introduction (Adagio), using phrases from Mendelssohn’s own love song, “Ist es wahr?” (“Is it true?”). The song text says “Is it true that you wait for me by the vine-covered wall?” It may have been written about an early love affair. The dotted rhythm of the song’s opening line continues at the start of the exciting A minor Allegro vivace. Mendelssohn starts the slow movement (Adagio non lento) with a 3/4 cantabile (singable) passage that moves into four-part, fugue-like writing. A faster section creates a more animated mood, after which the fugue returns, and then again the cantabile. The changes in tempo, the reuse of melodic and rhythmic motifs, the inclusion of a fugue, and the passionate writing are all reminiscent of late Beethoven.
The Intermezzo provides respite from the charged emotionalism with a simple tune and pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment. In the quiet middle section we hear some of the mysterious feeling of Mendelssohn’s work of the previous year, the incidental music he wrote for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The dramatic Presto combines a recitative-style violin line accompanied by tremolo (fast bowing on repeated pitches) in the other parts. Climactic crescendos are interrupted several times by a return of the recitative, and once by a secondary theme played in three-part counterpoint. Minor keys predominate through most of the movement until the major mode is finally reestablished with the return of the “Ist es wahr?” tune from the first movement, completing the cyclic structure. The piece ends with a gentle and unassuming final cadence.
Dmitri Shostakovich is an extremely controversial figure in international music. For many years he was considered an ardent supporter of Stalin and of the oppressive communist state of that time, and his music was, despite its popularity, dismissed as mere propaganda. Then in 1979 his memoirs — transcribed from secret interviews, smuggled into the West, and published under the title Testimony — revealed his opposition to that regime. Even though some scholars found discrepancies that cast doubt on the work’s authenticity, its publication helped refocus attention on his work.
Perhaps because he was attacked for his operas, Shostakovich concentrated his greatest efforts on untexted genres. His fifteen symphonies and the same number of string quartets are considered some of the greatest music composed in the twentieth century. His writing for strings gives each instrument independence to a greater extent than any composer before him. Themes are introduced as often by the viola or cello as by the violin. And even without words, these works are rich in emotional expressiveness and inner meaning.
Shostakovich’s last quartet, and one of his last works, is the String Quartet No. 15 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 144. It has the profound darkness of a requiem: Each of its six movements is marked Adagio. The opening Elegy, the longest movement, offers a simple melody that winds around E-flat, introduced by the second violin and answered by the other instruments. The volume never rises above mezzo-piano, and stays at piano for most of the movement. According to Shostakovich biographer Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich told the Beethoven Quartet to play the first movement “so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom.”
In the second movement (Serenade), pianissimo single notes swell into fortissimo sforzandi (sudden forceful accents). The texture is spare throughout, with occasional explosions of double- and triple-stopped chords in syncopated rhythms.
The short third movement (Intermezzo) features a soaring first violin passage, with the adagio cello maintaining the bass ground beneath it.
In the Nocturne, the viola takes the lead, and the first violin sits out for forty measures. This three-voice texture returns when the cello plays the same theme and the second violin is silent. The theme is gentle and sad, and the accompaniment is made of rocking arpeggios (chords played one note at a time).
The fifth movement is the Funeral March, confirming the idea that this work is Shostakovich’s contemplation on his own mortality. Dotted rhythms combine with spare textures and emphasis on the lower instruments (viola and cello) to create a somber mood.
In the Epilogue, a strong chord reestablishes the unity of the four voices. It is followed by a flurry of fast runs in the violin. This pattern continues: one strong chord, then solo runs and spare textures reminiscent of earlier movements. At the end, the cello takes the lead and the dotted rhythm as the other three instruments play fast but quiet trills. The final marking, as in many of Shostakovich’s quartets, is morendo—dying.
All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg.
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Program Notes © 2016 by Miriam Villchur Berg