The most famous string quartets of the present age take their names from diverse sources: the Emerson from an American transcendentalist whose first name is Ralph; the Juilliard from the famous conservatory where it is in residence; the Kronos from Greek mythology. To name a musical ensemble successfully is to skirt the perils of pretentiousness, obscurity of reference, corniness, and excess whimsicality, never mind pronounceability. Added to these challenges is the fact that the possibilities are as big as the universe, maybe even bigger—from a distant galaxy to the nearest tree or clump of grass, from the abstract to the tangible, the fictional to the real, the ancient to the futuristic: the Andromeda, the Larch, the Fescue, the Boson; the String Theory Quartet coming to a concert hall in a parallel universe just a wormhole away.
Which brings us to the acclaimed Danish String Quartet, whose latest North American tour included a stop this week at Cornell University in the middle of New York State. Three out of four of it members are Danes; the cellist is Norwegian. That hardly dilutes the Danish quotient, as the two countries had a union for three centuries, and their languages (dialects of one another really) are closely related, even if the throaty pronunciation of the Danes sets them apart from their Norwegian and Swedish neighbors.
The Danish String Quartet appears to be Danish—and in every way.
Each of the players has at least one of those Os with a slash through it in their name to prove Nordic provenance and—at least paternal—bloodlines.
Then there are the physical metrics of identity. All four young men have pale skin and blond hair, with some Viking red coloring cellist Fredrik Schøyten Sjölin’s mop. Three out of four have facial hair of varying scruffiness and fullness. The unbearded one, violinist Frederik Øland, offers clean-shaven contrast to his running mates and sports a bright blond neo-pompadour by way of compensation.
The quartet presents an image of racial and gender uniformity rare in the world at large, and even in the still-privileged circles of classical music.
The Danishness of the DSQ does not end here. The quartet’s concert dress is black, but not gleaming: shirt sleeves, jeans, and weathered shoes. The look is rumpled, untucked-in: Brooklyn-on-the-Baltic. Nary a jacket, tie, or a cummerbund; no shoe polish; and definitely no patent leather. Not much use of combs either. The single man-bun is self-curated by violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and garnished with a few loose locks and a nimbus of tawny-blond frizz. One has the impression that these guys attend quite carefully to their informality.
Is it fair, funny, or even relevant to say that as this foursome ambles onto the stage one can’t help but imagine them not in concert black (however matte), but rather in skins, armor and horned helmets pitching up not on the concert stage but on enemy shores with broadswords, spear, and axe instead of violins, viola, and cello. Yes, it is fair and relevant given how assiduously the DSQ brand plays on Danishness. The DSQ itself has fun with this image on their enjoyable and endearing website: “Being relatively bearded, we are often compared to the Vikings. However, we are only pillaging the English coastline occasionally.”
Love of country—and Scandinavia—may be one motivation for the DSQ moniker. Simplicity of reference and diction two others. But the main impulse appears to be, as always these days, branding.
The Viking past as part of the Danish brand is implied in the group’s faintly swashbuckling, roughly hewn stage manner that so effectively brings into relief not only the subtlety of what they do, but its vast expressivity—from whispered pianissimos and ghostly harmonics to searing crescondos and sforzando surprises. Theirs is modern Danish music making, precise and sensitive and powerfully persuasive.
Indeed, this is a squad that attacks the fortissimos with sometimes bloodcurdling tenacity: their big Beethoven playing—they are doing all eighteen quartets in a six-day stretch at the DSQ festival in Copenhagen this coming October—is electric, and sometimes almost terrifying in its intensity. For the more retiring types like me, this can occasionally be too much, too macho, the slashing bow strokes of the right hands amplified by the throttling motion of fast rubato in the left. Even in the expansive Adagio molto e mesto that is the penultimate movement of Beethoven’s Op. 59 no. 1 in F Major, none of the Danes tapered off much on the appoggiaturas and sighs: those weak notes that fade from sotto voceto a phantom space below utterance were too ardent, too insistent for my tastes. The group can get ethereal, but on the level of the phrase and the hierarchy of good and bad notes that was its lifeblood in the period around 1800, they opt much more often for the sustained drive, the long arc.
The spring-like theme of the first movement of the Beethoven quartet is deliver first by the cello and marked dolce(sweetly), accompanied by second violin and viola repeated notes, before the first violin takes up the melody and the full quartet cranks up the volume to very loud and beyond. Irresistible is the urge to warm the pastoral strains with vibrato rather than let them disarm with naïve simplicity.
The Danes don’t apply vibrato to everything, which counts as a relief from the unremitting tremulousness of so much modern string playing. Yet the ratio of vibrated notes to straight ones is reversed from Beethoven’s times: the non-vibrato tones become the exception—the ornament. Beneath the hipster modernism of their look, the DSQ guys are, it turns out, late Romantics.
But that is perhaps Danish, too: they are not dour Scandinavians of yore, but up-to-date men of feeling.
Related to all this is the egalitarian ethos that has the violinists alternate between the first and second chairs, rather than adhere to a strictly enforced hierarchy of the old school. Denmark came in atop the UN Happiness Report in 2016, was second in 2017, and slipped to fourth in the most recent ranking that appeared last month. Still, the Danes remain a contented lot, and one theory for this is not only that the country is wealthy and has robust social services, but also that its citizens are not driven to become the best, the richest—the next Zuckerberg or LeBron James. They are, it is claimed by some, happy to be in the vast middle—to play either first or second fiddle.
This social connectedness and sense of security can surely be heard in the DSQ’s musical cohesiveness just as it can be read about on their website where they profess that (in contrast to many other famed quartets) they are all close friends, who see their ensemble first as a way to “hang out” and play music together, and only secondarily as a money-making profession.
Coming from a happy country and being pals they don’t need to smile a lot on stage to express their contentment, and the searching counterpoint of the opening of Bartok’s String Quartet no. 1 in A minor from 1909—a kind of disillusioned descendant of the fugato that darkens the first movement of the Beethoven published 101 years earlier—showed them to be more than able to summon angst and erudition, and then serve them up with unrelenting clarity and dynamism. Right from start their Cornell concert, the quartet shows itself unquestionably worthy of its many accolades.
Yet if a group is going to brandish the Danish brand, it also worth remarking that the Danish national image is not all hyggeand wind farms, Midsummer bonfires on perfect beaches. Between the mighty quartets of Bartok and Beethoven, the DSQ treated the receptive Cornell audience to a medley of Scandinavian fiddle and folk tunes, by turns poignantly nostalgic and irreverently rollicking. Violinist and fiddling virtuoso, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen spoke, fittingly enough, of runes and spells cast on the “wrong woman” and other romantic misadventures. He and his fellows then conjured this magic with a potent mix of finesse and abandon: the rustic become high art without losing its textured authenticity. In richly varied arrangements the group has exploring their “native” music in concerts—as in their appearance on NPR tiny desk—and recordings like their 2014 release, Wood Works.
In the Cornell program the group linked their settings of traditional Nordic melodies with the Hungarian folk tunes that pervade the Bartok quartet and the rowdy Russian theme that closes the Beethoven. A short, simple and heartfelt hymn by the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen returned us to the north for the encore.
Long an exemplary nation in its commitment to international humanitarian aid and resistance to militarism, Denmark was a member right from the start of the American led “coalition” in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the bottom of the UN Happiness Report are Syria, Yemen, the Central African Republic, and Burundi. In 2015 more than 20,000 people were allowed to apply for asylum in Denmark (a country of 5.5. million people) and the acceptance rate was near 90%; those numbers dropped to around 3,000 and 30% in 2017. Currently almost no Syrian refugees are being taking in by the country. The government is closing refugee camps and shuttling incomers on to Sweden.
The DSQ is not responsible for the direction of Danish aid and immigration policy. Nor should the group be admonished for its genetic makeup or the way it explores its heritage of Scandinavian folk music in creative and compelling ways. It is not the fault of the DSQ’s members that when they present their folkloric melodies in the rarified setting of the concert hall they also send out a political message: one can’t help but think of people in boats—of light skin and dark.