ALBUM REVIEW: Danish String Quartet: Thomas Adès, Per Norgård, Hans Abrahamsen

by Seth Tompkins

Even if you know nothing about the Danish String Quartet, after listening to their latest album, it is clear that their capital strengths are versatility, sensitivity, and humility. Throughout this release, their inexhaustible flexibility, as well as their clearly attentive and humble collaborative spirit, show that this group of Scandinavians represents the acme of musical professionalism.

DSQ Press_Photo Caroline Bittencourt3

photo credit: Caroline Brittencourt

The repertoire selected for this release is tightly related in certain ways. All three pieces, by Thomas Adès, Per Norgård, and Hans Abramhamsen, are the composers’ first published attempts at writing for string quartet. Additionally, all three pieces come from the composers’ early twenties: both the Norgård and Abrahamsen were written when the composers were twenty years old, and the Adès arrived when its composer was twenty-three. These common threads provide the listener with interesting food for thought, setting up a satisfying journey through this music.

The title of the first piece, Arcadiana, is a theme of sorts for this entire collection of music, referring to the ancient Greek legend of the mythical utopian land of Arcadia. “Arcadia,” in the context of this release, refers to two aspects present in all of the included pieces.  First, it is connected to the frequent use of traditional tonality in this otherwise “modern” music as a means of harkening back to the “utopia” of earlier music. It is also connected to the utopia of youth, when the future appears bright and promising; this refers to the youthful ages of the composers at the times of composition of all three pieces.

The disc is laid out with the two longer pieces as bookends. It begins with Arcadiana, Op.12 by Thomas Adès. This piece is a series of short vignettes referring to geographic places (both real and mythical) and/or the music of other composers, including Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, and Elgar. The skill and versatility with which the quartet executes the contrasting textures here is striking.  This piece is an enjoyable listen at the surface level, with beautiful moments couched in fascinating complexity and, and also provides an engaging intellectual journey, if the listener is so inclined.


The second piece, the shortest on this disc, is the Quartetto Breve by Per Norgård. It is indeed breve, but it still packs a punch. Its two movements are of contrasting character, with the first being deliberate and rhapsodic, and the second having a punchier contrapuntal texture. As in the first piece, in both movements, the great delicacy with which the quartet approaches these contrasting pieces shines.

The second movement, in particular, showcases the quartet’s egalitarianism, which is required in order for this music to work. The pointillistic music in this movement demands the same kind of ensemble-wide sensitivity that is called for in Bach’s contrapuncti, and that ethic is equally at home here, yielding excellent results.  The opening cello notes in this movement are also notable; they showcase the warm yet balanced acoustic environment found throughout this superbly-mastered disc.  The listener gets a complementary balance of proximal sounds (bow hair scratching, etc.) and warm resonance; this results in a beautiful but non-distracting sound environment that serves primarily to showcase the supreme delicacy and deep preparation of the quartet.

Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No.1 rounds out this release. It is a series of 10 miniatures, called “short stories” by the composer. These diminutive pieces all have distinct characters, stemming from combinations of American minimalism, European serialism, contemporary techniques, and folk song. This piece is perhaps where the versatility of the Danish String Quartet is most obvious. The ease and dexterity with which they execute these dramatically different characters is impressive and delightful.


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