Sometimes music is a more effective transporter than the London Underground. This was certainly the case this Tuesday, when closures on the Piccadilly line resulted in me cycling at breakneck speed half-way across London to hear the Danish String Quartet playing in what I imagined to be a regular, run-of-the-mill, wear-what-you-like-as-long-as-it’s-corduroy concert at the Cadogan Hall. Upon arrival, having recovered my breath and wiped the sweat from my brows, however, I discovered that the audience consisted mainly of glamorous women and men in impeccable suits. Little did I know that this was an important political occasion: a concert given in honour of the beginning of the Danish presidency of the EU. It was only when the Danish ambassador herself took to the stage and made a speech – which began ‘Lords and Baronesses...’ – that I realised my knitwear was perhaps a little inappropriate.

Danish String Quartet, © Søren Andersen
Danish String Quartet,
© Søren Andersen

This concert, the Ambassador said, celebrated Denmark’s penchant for the ‘radically different’, expressed through the music of its most renowned composer, Carl Nielsen, and the ‘boundary-pushing’ performances of the Danish String Quartet. This group of trendy young gents, who apparently entertain themselves off-stage by engaging in ‘fierce computer game battles’, certainly pushed the boundaries of on-stage presentation: fashionable greyish jeans accompanied dinner jackets over open-collared white shirts.

But this youthful appearance fitted well with their performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 64 no. 5, which was delightfully spritely and presented with a playfulness entirely befitting the work. Nicknamed ‘The Lark’ because of the floating, chirruping first violin in the first movement, the sound was as light as the air in which the bird twitters and tweets. After some appropriate applause, the rest of the piece was played out in a similarly jovial and precise fashion – not particularly boundary-pushing, but all the better for that.

Carl Nielsen is one of those undervalued composers who, whilst not being especially groundbreaking, moulds inherited musical forms and styles into highly idiosyncratic, interesting and beautiful new shapes. The first movement of his String Quartet in F major, Op. 44 is a perfect example of this; the first violin melody outlines graceful harmonic twists and turns and is ingeniously developed over the movement in classic sonata form. Compared with the Haydn, this is relatively serious music, and it was coolly performed: never passionate, but then perhaps this music does not warrant passion.

Having said this, the second movement, with its very Nordic opening reminiscent of the icy musical landscapes of Sibelius, certainly required a more emotionally engaged interpretation to communicate its beauty fully. As it was, I was left rather cold by this performance. By the end of the movement, the chilliness had thawed; a cadence in the warm major led into the third movement, in which the quartet was visibly and audibly much more at ease – delighting in the humour of their performance and the rediscovered cheeky playfulness of the Haydn. The finale, exuberant, lively and full of energy, gave way to the hearty applause of Lords, Baronesses, Ambassadors and general music enthusiasts alike.

If Haydn’s quartet is a bit of a lark, there’s certainly nothing amusing about Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. Composed after the death of his beloved sister Fanny, and completed only weeks before his own death, this work is the pinnacle of the composer’s writing for string quartet, and emanates angst, grief and sorrow at every bow stroke. Therefore, to communicate the emotions of this piece in their entirety, a performance must be of the utmost seriousness and maturity.

As I sat through the first movement, I couldn’t help thinking that the Danish Quartet were a little shell-shocked at having to make this transition to sobriety. The music lacked the intensity it demanded, and consequently, I felt relatively unmoved. Like the Piccadilly, the line of communication from the composer (via the performers) to the listeners was faulty and hence little musical transportation could occur. However, just as these thoughts were running through my mind, the group really upped its game; the second movement, as tempestuous as the first, was the most passionate and engaged music of the night. But alas, the flame burned too bright, and by the end of the third – a lyrical movement shot through with poignant sadness – the solemnity of the work seemed almost visibly to weigh heavy on the shoulders of these previously carefree, fun-filled players. And although the energy for the sprint towards the finish line returned for the finale, still the lasting impression of the performance was not one of ‘radical difference’, but rather one of emotional diffidence. The musical talent and communicative potential are certainly there, and certainly make for a very good show; to become great, boys must become men – emotionally so.

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