By Jay Harvey
To deal with the novelty first: Hans Abrahamsen's String Quartet No. 1 ("Ten Preludes") gave the evening's best indication that even when the Danish String Quartet is presented with a miscellany of demands for the four players, they remain unfailingly a unit.
The Danish Quartet, solidly unified in performance, indulges its individualism here.
The group appeared again Wednesday in the Ensemble Music Society series at the Indiana History Center, 13 months after they made a sensational local debut.
EMS President John Failey noted from the stage how unusual it is for this presenter to invite an ensemble back so soon. But the wisdom of the decision was evident in the difficulty of finding any of the Basile Theater's 290 seats empty as the concert started.
As for the work by the Danish composer Abrahamsen (b. 1952), it consists of a series of short pieces promising development of some sort but never allowing it to take place. The idioms mastered in the course of the work extend across the variety of writing for two violins, viola, and cello. Though the players seemed to be pulled in different directions, they sounded comfortable as a team throughout.
In "Ten Preludes," there are buzzing tremolos, skittering gestures suggesting mice in the woodwork, striking unison declarations, unsteady exchanges of syncopated passages, and a final prelude of hymnlike solace that suggests all's right with the world. I heard fleeting stylistic allusions to the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg), to the "night music" of Bela Bartok, and to the kind of across-the-board digging in we find in Shostakovich's string quartets. Resolution of mood and harmony was almost always suspended.
So, when it came to opening and closing the program out of the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), the unified presentation of the DSQ rested upon a foundation most congenial to showing that it is indeed "indivisible by four" (to borrow the title of Arnold Steinhardt's memoir of the Guarneri Quartet).
The unity that violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin typically display is the product of coordination through time and tone alike. The cellist plays like a violinist, in the sense that his bow control is capable of the delicacy and near weightlessness of his violin colleagues; the middle voice of the viola stays thoroughly in the same spirit. In Haydn's String Quartet in C major, op. 20, no.2, which opened the concert, you never got the sense that in every breast there was a soloist ready to burst out. No individual voice stuck out, whatever the temporary prominence of its material. Every fluctuation of tempo, as in the third-movement minuet, was unanimously executed.
After intermission came one of those middle-period Beethoven pieces that represent the ingenious bridge he laid down between the past and the future of his art. His Quartet no. 7 in F major, op. 59, no. 1, opens with what is inevitably called a square melody in the cello which is then treated to startling contrasts as well as reaffirmations. In every respect, especially in the delightful second movement, you had the illusion of hearing one instrument play the music even while looking at four of them hard at work.
The slow movement can try a listener's patience. It really sinks into its somber mood — one of the cases where a composer's life experiences at the time seem to have influenced what emerged from his pen. The Adagio is certainly overstated in how it handles two themes at length, twinned in sadness. Another example better known to the general public is the third movement of the Ninth Symphony. In both cases, their effectiveness is something we feel partly in retrospect after the finale gets under way; when we're in the midst of it, we can hardly keep from looking for the exits.
In the symphony, the initial statement famously doesn't offer any relief at first; in the case of the quartet, the lifting of spirits is immediate. There's a wonderful transition to it as well, which the DSQ managed superbly. The borrowed Russian theme then gets the ultimate of Beethoven's virtuosity, and the players were up to the task. The performance Wednesday made it a special treat to experience the music's complete banishment of dark clouds. The reigning zest prepared us for the serenity of a Carl Nielsen song that the ensemble offered as an encore.