An evening of convergence, divergence by Danish String Quartet at Tanglewood
LENOX >> Compare: Gruff Beethoven, an aging man living in the near-isolation of his deafness in Vienna. Happy Mendelssohn, a teenaged prodigy living in the comfort of his prosperous, loving family in Berlin.
Only two years lay between the two composers in their works performed Thursday night at Tanglewood by the Danish String Quartet. Making a Tanglewood debut, the three Danes and a Norwegian cellist offered Beethoven's Quartet No. 12, Opus 127, preceded by Mendelssohn's No. 2, Opus 13 (actually his first in order of composition).
Beethoven's work dates from 1825. Mendelssohn's followed in 1827, the year of Beethoven's death. Stylistically, the two works at first glance seem an epoch apart. Mendelssohn is bursting with melody, energy and romantic graces; Beethoven is ruminative and transcendent in his quarrel with fate.
On closer inspection, the young Mendelssohn, while staking out his own domain, was clearly in awe of the master. Quotations from the last four Beethoven quartets weave in and out of Mendelssohn's effusions, culminating in his finale's clear echoes of Beethoven's "Must it be? It must be!" in the finale of his last quartet.
On a humid night that probably wasn't conducive to string playing, these were performances that never quite seemed to have a center. It was as if the players, in search of the music's bone and muscle, went too far in removing interpretive overlays imposed on it over the years.
Tone was on the dry side, and while the four parts were clear and coordinated, they didn't seemed to cohere into statements about what was being played. Introspective and stormy by turn, Beethoven's great adagio, for instance, seemed to wander through the variations. The scherzo sounded in need of greater rhythmic impulse.
Tour fatigue? Bad night amid Berkshire weather? Fresh look at old masterpieces? Hard to tell. In any case, an apparent attempt to give you the music straight in both pieces, without romantic excess, drained each of cumulative impact.
For a taste of home, the group opened the program with Per Norgard's seven-minute Quartet No. 1 ("Quartetto breve"), a dark, slashing work from 1952 by a composer who has been coming into increasing prominence in this country.