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Strings of Heavenly Breadth

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
04/18/2024 -  & March 27 (Copenhagen), April 10 (Santa Barbara), 13 (Berkeley), 14 (Vancouver), August 1 (Lenox), 2024
Franz Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, D. 956 – Winterreise, Op. 89, D. 911: 23. “Die Nebensonnen” (arr. Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen)
Thomas Adès: Wreath – for Franz Schubert (New York Premiere)

Johannes Rostamo (Cello), Danish String Quartet: Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Oland (Violins), Asbjørn Nørgaard (Viola), Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (Cello)

R. Tonsgaard Sørensen, F. Schøyen Sjölin, A. Nørgaard, F. Oland (© Caroline Bittencourt)

Hark, I have dared and done, for my resting place is found, The C major of this life; so, and now I will try to sleep.
Robert Browning, referring to Schubert Quintet.

The Adagio of this work beckons one into heaven.
Arthur Rubinstein, requesting that the C Major Quintet be played at his funeral.

The reputation of the Danish String Quartet (DSQ) rivals that of their national philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. Both took the ultimate idea–the search for a Spiritual Sensation–and made their “Leap of Faith” so that we, the audience, could share that feeling.

Last night, DSQ produced three incarnations of Franz Schubert. First the C Major Quintet, next a strange work inspired by the same work. Third a transcription from that unearthly Winterreise.With two of them, we were moved. With one of them, we were merely fascinated.

The DSQ, with guest cellist Johannes Rostamo, have, beside faultless technique, an empathy which is unique. Whether the solo violin for the Schubert second movement or the balance of double pizzicato for Thomas Adès’ Wreath – for Franz Schubert, or that mysterious C Major opening, they had more than balance. They parted ways for the solos. During the most intricate five-way counterpoint, each instrument was enounced, five colors blended into one tapestry.

The Quintet is, simply put, ineffable. Not the sounds themselves, but the ever-fungible moods and emotions. Like Mozart’s chamber works, the changes from major to minor, from dark to light and back again, were sudden, abrupt, yet always right.

The DSQ knows this instinctively. The opening orphic notes were transformed into a ravishing first theme. And the DSQ hushed this to one second theme which some believe to be his most beautiful song. (How silly! That’s like “the most beautiful piece of caviar”, “the most beautiful snowdrop”).

Ditto for their Adagio, where the bliss of the E Major lines abruptly turned to F minor. Some writers translate this as the composer’s fear of oncoming death. Musicians know this was simply genius transition genius.

The C Major well could have been another “Unfinished”. How can one continue? True, that Scherzo is like an after‑thought. And if DSQ gave a roughness rather than a velocity to the finale, so be it.

F. Schubert/T. Adès (© Faber Music)

After intermission, the DSQ played one of their commissioned Doppelgänger pieces. Specifically, they asked four prominent composers to write a work which might have occurred to them based on one of Schubert’s almost insouciant miracles. The works of his last two years. Conceivably, this could be like a Gidon Kremer or Schnittke or even Stravinsky modern arrangement of a work that we already know. Thomas Adès took a totally different path in Wreath – for Franz Schubert.

Basically, he gave us a stasis. The outer instruments (violin, cello) played continual pizzicati. The other three used their bows to give a shadowy, cloudy repetitional remembrance from three notes out of a single measure Schubert’s Adagio. Yes, the counterpoint was opaque, the rhythms seemingly unchanging, that single measure was hidden, but one heard it peeping out. Sometimes by itself, sometimes inverted, but never really apparent.

Mr. Adès, though, is never as easy as that. The players are allowed to play each measure once or several times, while the partners have the same freedom of repetition or no‑repetition. This aleatory variation, in the composer’s words. “is flexible: between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the players, or maybe the weather.”

(Mr. Adès is internationally known, but that British sense of humor is never concealed.)

Adès “wreath” was akin to Morton Feldman’s repetitious works, though the covert, almost surreptitious few Schubert notes were like lodestones

Without a watch, I didn’t know the duration. And initially, as it went on, I felt it was far far longer than the hour‑long original Quintet. True, I was unfortunately not moved by the music. I was too conscious of those three notes hidden in the textured repetitions, one had to say to oneself, as if spotting a hare in the woods, “Ah, there’s the Schubert harmony” before it darts away.

Second, while the most beautiful Schubert theme is an unanswerable choice, this Adagio would take some beating. Glory to Mr. Adès for trying. But this is like trying to rebuild Borobudur or the Chartres Cathedral. Not so much chutzpah as utterly impossible.

On third thought, the original C Major Quintet, when played as well as the DSQ, was not quite of heavenly length. It had no length at all. It floated, lamented, in a chimerical Einsteinian stratosphere where clocks are unknown.

Outside of a delicious Danish folk song as encore, the final work was a quintet arrangement from the most beautiful song cycle ever written, Schubert’s Winterreise, by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. The words of this penultimate song are plainly surrealistic (“I saw three suns in the sky;/I gazed at them long and intently/And they, too, stood there so fixedly,/as if unwilling to leave me”). The music was partly lyrical, partly hypnotic, and like all of Schubert, transcending words of description.

If the Quintet was condensed to quark size, rather than the actual near hour of earthly time, the three‑minute “Mock Suns” seemed eternal. The Danish String Quartet played both with equal intensity. Light and darkness, heaven, hell and purgatory juggling with each other.

Like Haydn lifting his hands to the celestial firmament, DSQ’s notes came from “Up There.”

Harry Rolnick



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