The Danish String Quartet in Lammermuir
Rebecca Franks enjoys a trio of concerts in East Lothian
Aberlady Kirk, a breath away from the East Lothian coastline, was the brightly lit, warmly resonant venue for the Danish String Quartet's first appearance at this year's Lammermuir Festival. Over three concerts in three churches the four blonde-mopped young men, self-styled 'modern Vikings' – who seem endearingly unaware, or at least un-phased, by their oodles of musical talent – showed just why they've been made BBC New Generation Artists this year and are members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre's CMS Two scheme in New York.
Atmospheric, imaginative arrangements of Scandinavian folk tunes opened the Aberlady concert, introduced in a friendly manner by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. It's become something of a hallmark of the group's concerts, and they've just recorded a CD of them. On this hearing it'll be well worth a listen. Apt, too, given the location, how Scottish some of the Danish Faroe-Isle melodies sounded. (Though perhaps to the musicians' ears it's the Scottish folk that sounds Danish?) The fresh hope of these wedding songs was blasted apart by the raw turmoil of Janáček's First Quartet, 'The Kreutzer Sonata' made to sound incredibly strange – in a good way – thanks to the Danish Quartet's fierce commitment.
Fellow New Generation Artist Mark Simpson joined for Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, performed with more cheerful bustle than this reflective masterpiece perhaps warrants. Tempos felt rather fast, some edges a little untidy, but there was no mistaking the energetic feeling of life that pulsed through their performance. And the clarinet's lone final falling fifth right at the end of the piece seemed all the more poignant, a lonely voice emerging out of a tumult of feeling.
In a similarly packed-out Stenton Church the next day, the Danish Quartet returned with Haydn’s Sunrise Quartet, capturing the music's good spirits. The Quartet's rich, lively sound seemed lit from within by warm viola and second violin. An Adagio performed with poise gave way to bouncing energy in the Menuetto, though the sense of direction faltered a little in the finale. But their virtuosity and abandon seemed ideally suited to Mendelssohn’s masterly second String Quartet, which here brimmed with purpose and feeling. The sheer volume of the Quartet’s playing made it sound more like a small string orchestra, especially towards the end of the first movement. In the melancholic little intermezzo, the first violinist’s sweetly singing tone brought out its quiet sadness. The light-as-a-feather scherzo flew by as it should, petering out in a patter of pizzicatos before plunging straight into the intense drama of the finale’s opening. And when the opening 'Ist es wahr?' (Is it true?) motif of the very start returned, the sense of consolation and the balance of parts was beautifully judged.
Haydn was back on the music stand for the St Mary’s, Whitekirk concert: in serious mode this time, drawing a very fine, composed performance from the Danish String Quartet. And in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, joined again by the superb Mark Simpson, this time on basset clarinet, all the musicians produced moments of impressive technical brilliance, as well as a slow movement of moving beauty.
Picture credit: Caroline Bittencourt