The Middlebury Campus

The Danish String Quartet

The Danish String Quartet played both classical and Nordic folk tunes.

The Danish String Quartet played both classical and Nordic folk tunes.

Courtesy of the Office of Communications

Courtesy of the Office of Communications

The Danish String Quartet played both classical and Nordic folk tunes.


On Saturday, Oct. 7, the Danish String Quartet played Bela Bartok’s First String Quartet, Sz. 40 Op. 7, Beethoven’s Seventh String Quartet, Op. 59 No. 1, subtitled “Razumovsky” for their Russian patron, and a collection of folk tunes arranged by the quartet. They encored a piece by a contemporary Danish composer. The rest of the wonderful folk tunes they played are on the quartet’s new CD, titled “Last Leaf.”

The program said that this ensemble only plays music they enjoy playing, a statement I would not have believed before hearing their lively performance. The best parts of yesterday’s performance were those moments when a new theme, usually a folk theme, entered the music, and the players traded it among their instruments, clearly enjoying their performance. Despite the length of the concert, which started at 8 and ended at 10:30, I was never unhappy to be there.

The concert started with Bartok’s quartet, a continuous 30-minute mass of music which sometimes seemed to descend into Schoenberg-esque atonality only to recover into an Hungarian folk tune. Divided into three movements, lento, allegretto, and allegro vivace, the piece was a good one for the beginning of a concert. It takes a considerable amount of effort to derive meaning from listening to it, and people are usually the most alert at the beginning of concerts.

The cellist spoke briefly about the latent programmatic content in its composition: Bartok was not succeeding as a composer, had failed to attract a spouse, and had escaped to the countryside to collect folk melodies. This explanation helped to ease the toughness of the music, which oscillated wildly between Late-Romantic extended tonality and rough-hewn folk melodies.

This odd mixture of styles and influences provided many opportunities for the players to shine, and they did. Whenever a new folk melody entered the contrapuntal mass, that line stood out immediately, for whoever was playing did so with a specific zeal, the sort that only appears when one is really passionate about something. The recording of these would not do this quartet justice as viewing the players live adds an intangible quality to the performance which makes going to such concerts worth the cost in the first place.

Next, the quartet played their folk melodies. There is less to say here about the concert itself and more about what they played and how they played it. It is rare that a quartet plays something so outside the standard repertoire. Even some of the more adventurous items from last year like Berg’s Lyric Suite can be found at several concerts per year, but these folk tunes were truly unique.

Allison Carroll, director of the Performing Arts Series Society, said it took three years to book this quartet because their performance schedule is set years in advance. She said the reason she wanted this particular quartet so much was because they play these folk melodies.

Not only were the melodies excellent music on their own, the particular zeal with which the quartet played could inspire anyone to share this music with their friends whether they usually listen to classical music or not. The deeply-set rhythmic qualities of these pieces make them accessible to the uninitiated.

After the intermission was Beethoven’s quartet. This canonical classical piece uses a Russian folk theme in its fourth movement.

The first movement begins with a wonderful rousing theme played first by the cello and then by the first violin. It moves and develops well in some sort of sonata form, but this is one of those pieces where it is difficult to tell just where the development section ends. The second movement is a scherzo by most meanings of that word: it is funny, it feels like Bartok is toying with his audience, and the players smiled throughout it. If the descriptions of the first two movements seem brief, it is because the third movement seemed so long in comparison. This was another movement where it was difficult to tell the exact contours of the sections, but the overall effect was profound. The moment the music transitioned from the funeral march of the third movement to folk music in the fourth was one of the most moving of the night. This moment exemplified how enjoyable it was to see the players trade the same theme amongst each other. October continues to be a promising month for classical concerts, with soloist Soovin Kim performing Bach’s partitas this Friday, Oct. 13, and the Heath Quartet performing Friday, Oct 27. Both of these PASS events will take place in Robison Hall.

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