Sunday afternoon in Hertz Hall the Danish String Quartet made their Cal Performances debut with an ambitiously mature program featuring Danish composer Hans Abrahmsen’s String Quartet No. 1 “Ten Preludes” (1973), Mendelssohn’s A minor String Quartet, Op. 13 “Ist Es Wahr?” and Beethoven’s massive late string Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, known for its artistic and historical complexities. Professor Nicholas Mathew from UC Berkeley gave a pre-concert talk in which he described some of those complexities in Beethoven’s Op. 132, in regards to the piece’s place in “string quartet, as a genre, history” (a relatively new concept during Beethoven’s time, initiated by pieces exactly such as this one), and its relation to and influences on later quartets such as the A minor Mendelssohn. The talk provided just enough background information for the reception of a program as dense and complicated such as this one, and quite a high percentage of the full concert audience attended.
Abrahmsen’s Quartet, a collection of “short-stories” – preludes to nothing in particular – provided an array of characters ranging a surprisingly full spectrum of musical expression, from palpitating nervousness, abrupt violence through contrasting dynamics, and pleading lyricism. The last of the preludes, a cheerful C Major pastiche in the Baroque style, set the theme for the rest of the program: for Mendelssohn’s Beethoven-inspired fugal writing in the A minor piece, and even more importantly, for Beethoven’s self-consciously archaic writing in his Op. 132, especially in its slow third movement. The musicians, reserved in expressive motion and dramatic through restraint and silence rather than over-intensity, immediately showed just how perfectly connected as a group they were through the first piece, never failing, through their smoothness of integration, to keep the listener on edge and interested. After the applause, they came on stage in a different order, the violins switching roles for the following piece.
The A minor Quartet Op. 13 stems out from Mendelssohn’s own song, “Ist Es Wahr?” that he published shortly before the quartet, and, with its multi-sectioned movements and intricate contrapuntal writing, sets Beethoven at the middle of its compositional soul, whether consciously or unconsciously. The communicativeness of the musicians was expressed from the very first notes of the slow, emotional opening section; the easily recognizable long-short-long rhythm of “Ist Es Wahr?”, although played sentimentally, could not help but bring to mind Beethoven’s own “Es muss sein” short-long-short motif – which, although more angular and much darker, could possibly have been the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s song. The intensity of the musicians’ pauses throughout the quartet on fermatas, and the exaggeration of rests and carving of long melodic lines was successful in expressing the piece’s urgency and youthful yet mature passion. Although each of the string players did a perfect job of supporting the others within his own string-quartet-specific role, the violist, Abjorn Norgaard, seemed to be especially communicative during silences, intensely gazing at his musical partners until the sounds of the decaying notes fully disintegrated. The recurring subject of the piece’s fugue in the slow movement, started out in “pure form” in the viola – and which returned in the last movement – was melded into many different musical substances by the players and given a quicksilver changeability through different colors, dynamics, and timing. It was interesting to see how each time the subject reemerged, it was not presented as the “most important thing happening at that time” but rather, as a different gesture altogether within its new, changing environment. All parts were equally important, yet not played in a way that was overly expressive when put together; thus, the sound of the group was never too intense, and the clarity of the soft sections and phrases, even in echoic Hertz Hall, was admirable.
What was perhaps a similarity in Mendelssohn’s fugue’s subject to part of the melody from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was only apparent from time to time during the fugal development of the piece (precisely because of the varying narrative in which the lines, with the subject, progressed). But the musical and emotional connection couldn’t have been forged better between the Op. 13 quartet and Beethoven’s Op. 132, perhaps because of the similarities between the “Ist Es Wahr?” and “Es Muss Sein” motifs, or the similar-to-Beethoven’s-7th fugal subject – or perhaps because of nothing in the music at all but simply the group’s projection of the musical material and its constant connective nature.
The Beethoven, played in the second half, could have been sufficient on its own as a concert program, and the clear-mindedness and calm intensity of the quartet could not have been more appropriate in presenting such a massive piece. The heart of this string quartet – its slow movement, with its Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanks) – was approached in a similar way to the Mendelssohnian fugal section of the Op. 13 Quartet, yet, as is completely appropriate for the piece, much more reflectively. The artistry that this gigantic movement requires, being the epitome of the Beethovenian, Romantic notion of “unspooling of eternal longing”, matched by nothing except perhaps the 20-minute such lament found in the slow movement of Hammerklavier, is remarkable; nothing was missing from the string players’ artistic palette. The only thing that one could have hoped for, perhaps, was a clearer change of bowings and emphasis of connected notes within slurs; although the musicians have mastered the art of the “Schnabel long line” quite perfectly, the still-Beethovenian obsession with articulation could have been more emphasized – although it was not at all altogether missing. The relief that the march movement after the slow provided was expressed through lighthearted humor by the players, and the again emotional yet, unlike in most of Beethoven’s late string quartets, very conclusive end, provided perhaps the most perfect close to a concert that anyone would hope for.
The enthusiastic standing ovation convinced the musicians to give an encore. As they came back on stage, all dressed in skinny black pants and sporting shaggy beards – something they hilariously pride themselves with on their website – the earlier mood of intense seriousness and reflectiveness that was without interruption in the concert seemed to dissipate as the first violinist shyly gave a short speech about how honored the group is to debut on the Cal Performances stage. It was at this moment that it became amazingly clear that the audience had been unbearably, uncharacteristically quiet throughout the whole concert; surely, the intensity of the program and the musicians’ believable evoking of the music’s many heavy ideas affected the audience greatly. But as the atmosphere lightened up, a few laughs were heard, and the string quartet sat down again to play Nu Blomstertideu Kommer (“The Spring is Coming”), a sweet, short Swedish melody from 1693 (which, as they explained, is also popularly sung in Denmark). The sweetness of this addition was perhaps the only thing that could have worked after the massiveness of the Beethoven, and many audience members, as they were walking out of the hall, were heard exclaiming what a “sublime” concert it was.