Danish String Quartet Gives Spirited Festival Performance

Call it the deconstruction of the fugue. Or rather the destruction of.

The Danish String Quartet called Monday’s performance at Dennis Union Church “The Art of the Fugue.” Perhaps for tradition’s sake – or perhaps to avoid scaring the patrons.

The concert, part of the ongoing Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, invoked the fugue from four disparate sources: Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Schnittke and Beethoven. Of the four, only Mendelssohn’s could possibly be called traditional. As for the rest – it was wild.

The quartet – Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, who alternate violin chairs; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello – formed in 2001 and has increased its stateside presence recently as resident artists in New York’s prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two program.

Performing here on the final stop of a summer tour, the foursome met the demanding music with boisterous energy. This wasn’t a dainty evening of frilly chamber music-making; this concert was loud and challenging.

The group opened with an un-capricious capriccio and a fugue from Mendelssohn, two movements of an unlinked set of four. The capriccio, Italian-flavored but slow-tempoed, was an appetizer; the fugue, a genteel taste of what followed.

Shostakovich has 15 quartets, none of which gets played enough. The ninth, in E-flat major, illustrates the inscrutable nature of the prolific Russian.

The five movements are linked by various solo gestures – a drone line in the viola, a quiet figure in the first violin. A shape-changing piece, with moods alternately alert then drowsy, fiery then pensive, it demands virtuosity.

The foursome was up for it. Early on, in the first movement and somewhat in the following adagio, opportunities for more articulate phrasing slipped by. But in a work that featured extended pizzicato, regular solos for each member, challenging unison playing (especially in the finale), and snippets of melody that get articulated, then abandoned for subsequent ideas, the quartet played with real musical insight.

The fugue in this quartet is more of an afterthought, its dramatic moments more prominently displayed in a reworked Russian folk melody that brings the piece nearly to a halt in the fourth movement, and another re-imagined idea, from the “William Tell Overture,” that comes and goes.

Alfred Schnittke felt the impact of his compatriot Shostakovich, as well as the impact of others. His work has multiple periods with distinct styles, including a late, mad foray into almost inaccessible ideas.

His Third Quartet comes from an earlier period (1983) of integration, when he blended and extended stolen musical treasures – “ghosts,” Nørgaard called them, during introductory remarks.
The ghosts in question here are Lassus, Beethoven and Shostakovich.

These three get quoted frequently, especially the insistent central idea from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. But Schnittke’s own voice makes this quartet a marvel. Clever glissandos, deeply explored counterpoint and melodies with unexpected harmonies make it unique.

The playing had confident assurance, just what a technically demanding work needs in order to make sense. Of particular note: one third-movement section, with tonality stretched past the breaking point, where each player was asked not only to hold the unusual pitches almost past tolerance, but to pluck fingerboard pizzicato at the same time – as if to repeat the strange sounding idea until we all understood it.

Schnittke’s musical references to Shostakovich and Beethoven folded this intelligently conceived program into a neat little package. To complete the wrapping, the quartet played Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, long a musical outlier, but in this demanding sequence of pieces, a natural conclusion.

A four-part fugue, with an overture and a coda that make it seem quasi-symphonic, the Grosse Fuge demands tremendous energy for its outlandish ideas. Following the introduction, the first theme, crazed and virtuosic, was played with abandon.

Such risk-taking causes breakdowns, and intonation in the violins was sometimes compromised. The vigorous approach also brought rewards: After that rough-hewn first foray, the following three thematic ideas sounded calm, complete. The previous musical challenges had created a context for the Grosse Fuge, making it sound (anachronistically) like a natural progression.

An encore was enthusiastically demanded, and played: The group honored Carl Nielsen, the favored composer of its homeland, with a simple four-voice chorale.

The Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival continues through Aug. 28 at various venues.