May 17, 2007


Nielsen: String Quartet in G Minor, op. 13; String Quartet in F Major, op. 44; String Quintet in G Major. The Young Danish Quartet with Tim Frederiksen, viola. Dacapo. $16.99.

      Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is best known for his six fascinating symphonies and his opera Maskarade, which many Danes consider the Danish opera. He is less associated with chamber music, but he wrote some very good examples of it – although his total output was modest. Two of the three pieces on this new Dacapo CD are works of Nielsen’s youth, which would seem to make them a perfect fit for The Young Danish Quartet, a group that was formed when all four members were under 18 years of age (the photo in the booklet accompanying this CD looks more like a picture of a rock band than a classical quartet – a fact that bodes well for classical music’s continuing attractiveness to young people).

      What really matters is that violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Carl-Oscar Østerlind play this music with intensity, involvement and apparently intuitive understanding, making a strong case for these works, even if the compositions are not at the pinnacle of Nielsen’s creativity.

      Two of the three pieces on this CD were written when Nielsen was in his early 20s: the String Quartet in G Minor (his first piece in this form) and his only String Quintet both date to 1887-8, although the composer somewhat modified the quartet a decade later (principally by adding a section in the finale that uses music from earlier movements, to give the work greater formal unity). The quartet’s first movement has a strong opening and is tuneful, but Nielsen has clearly not found an individual voice yet. The second movement, marked “Andante amoroso,” has an especially lovely middle section, while the scherzo that follows has great vitality and shows a few touches characteristic of Nielsen’s more fully developed style. The finale has a strong opening and interesting use of pizzicati – but the work as a whole does not quite hang together, even with the added section.

      The Quintet is somewhat more effective. The added viola is used for a fuller ensemble sound, not to darken the overall tone. The first movement has considerable verve; the second, slow movement is emotional, with a broad main theme; the scherzo features interesting figurations and alternates “joking” sections with lyrical ones; and the finale, after opening as if it is a continuation of the scherzo, becomes more intense, then introduces lighter episodes for contrast, building on the two moods until a speedy and effective coda.

      The most interesting piece here is the String Quartet in F Major, which was composed in 1906 and slightly revised in 1919. This was Nielsen’s final string quartet. The first movement offers complexity and tonal ambiguity; the second is broad and sweeping (it is marked “Adagio con sentimento religioso”); the scherzo contrasts gentle and intense segments, and has some unexpected rhythm changes; and the finale is decidedly reminiscent of Maskarade, on which Nielsen was working as he composed the original version of this quartet. There are also brief sections that sound like his Second Symphony, ”The Four Temperaments,” but the quartet uses its operatic and symphonic elements in a way that is completely appropriate for chamber music – and highly effective. All three of these Nielsen works deserve to be heard more often, especially when played with as much enthusiasm as they receive on this CD.

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