Nielsen: String Quartets, Vol. 1: in G minor, Op. 13; in F, Op. 44; String Quintet in G

COMPOSERS: Nielsen
LABELS: Dacapo
ALBUM TITLE: Nielsen
WORKS: String Quartets, Vol. 1: in G minor, Op. 13; in F, Op. 44; String Quintet in G
PERFORMER: Young Danish Quartet;Tim Frederiksen (viola)
CATALOGUE NO: 6.220521
Judging from their dates alone, you might conclude that Nielsen tried out large scale thinking in string chamber works before settling down to the real business of writing symphonies. In fact, while it’s true that he never produced a string quartet to rival the Fifth Symphony or the Wind Quintet, the quartets in particular reveal that for Nielsen this was a very different medium, with demands and possibilities of its own. It’s also pretty clear that his ideal here was more the wit of Mozart and Haydn than the soul-searching of Beethoven. The energy can be intense, but the thinking is often more mercurial, with humour and transparency to the fore. It’s hard to imagine Nielsen composing anything for solo string ensemble with the high seriousness of the ‘Melancholic’ movement from the Four Temperaments Symphony or the epic sweep of the Inextinguishable.

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The Young Danish Quartet brings plenty of focused energy to this music, and every movement has that ‘certain current’, without which Nielsen claimed his music was ‘no good anymore’. The playing can be delicate, and isn’t completely without humour. But more often the manner is just too severe, driven, unsmiling – not playful enough. Combined with a very bright recording it can all seem too fierce, despite the technical refinement and impressive intellectual penetration. The Oslo Quartet on Naxos are more successful at finding the human heart of this music, and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields do a wonderful job with the Quintet, plus they’re much more attractively recorded. Stephen Johnson