Carl Nielsen: String Quartets Vol. 2
10 August 2008
New York Times
Last year the Young Danish String Quartet, founded in 2001 by four
students in Copenhagen, released the first volume of a survey of the
four published string quartets and the string quintet by Carl Nielsen.
The dynamic performances made a strong case for seldom-heard works by
Denmark's best-known composer.
Volume 2 has just been issued, and the impassioned, insightful
performances again shed light on fascinating repertory. Nielsen, who
died in 1931 at 66, is usually associated with early-20th-century
nationalist composers. Yet, a self-described free spirit, he set himself
apart from his safely folkloric compatriots.
His boldest experiments came with works written from the early
1900s on. Most of the F minor Quartet (1890) was written by the
25-year-old Nielsen during his first trip outside Denmark, to Germany
and elsewhere. The teeming, late Romantic, fitful music, with its
elusive scherzo and volatile finale, was a little too radical for the
esteemed composer and violinist Joseph Joachim, who greeted Nielsen in
Berlin. Unbowed by the master's reaction, Nielsen took the quartet home,
where it caught on with performers and critics.
Some of those same critics were perplexed by Nielsen's next
quartet, in E flat, written and revised in the late 1890s, complaining
that its ''convoluted'' contrapuntal writing would be appreciated only
by connoisseurs. Here the music comes across as daring, with its jagged
rhythms and obsessive repetitions. The restless Andante, with hauntingly
expansive melodic writing, breaks into a wonderfully strange (and
hardly convoluted) fugato.
These Danish players have excelled in performances of works by
Brahms, Mozart and Bartok in New York in recent years. But they play
Nielsen's quartets as if they owned them. Still in their mid-20s, they
should be able to keep calling themselves the Young Danish String
Quartet for at least another decade.