Danish String Quartet Will Perform Complete Cycle of Beethoven String Quartets
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center hosts the ensemble, whose concerts run February 7–18.
David Finckel, co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, noticed their style first. Four men, walking onto the stage of CMS’s Rose Studio in 2012, had a wildness about them. “They looked like Scandinavian cowboys,” Finckel recalls. These “cowboys” were the Danish String Quartet (DSQ), auditioning for a place in CMS’s young artist program (now called The Bowers Program). Soon it became clear that the players offered more than just style. As they sank into a Beethoven slow movement, “everyone on the jury put their pencils down,” Finckel says, “and just listened. The quartet brought a love and reverence and magic and selfless dedication—it was so powerful and so intense, you stopped judging and gave yourself over.”
The DSQ have since become regulars on the CMS stage. From February 7–18, 2020 they return for perhaps their greatest challenge: performing a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets over six concerts. The DSQ has performed the cycle once before, as part of their chamber music festival in Denmark. Frederik Øland, one of the quartet’s violinists, says they anticipated many challenges. He knew the group would experience physical fatigue. He knew there would be anxieties. “This thought would pop into my head: What if I turn the page and I have not looked at the page?” he admits. “It would have been impossible—but those thoughts creep into your mind.”
What Øland did not expect was how emotionally tough the experience would be. Speaking with Playbill over Skype on the afternoon of a concert day in Copenhagen, he seems almost out of breath as he recalls post-cycle fatigue. “Afterward I was totally drained,” he remembers. “I felt hypersensitive. We have a saying in Danish: You feel like your ‘skin is thin.’ With Beethoven, you can hold back physically, but emotionally you have to do everything one hundred percent.”
Finckel agrees: “Performing Beethoven’s quartet cycle is a marathon.” Finckel, who played in
the cycle many times as a member of the Emerson String Quartet, describes a regimen that might be familiar to athletes. Any carefully structured preparation must combine personal practice and group rehearsal with the need to stay in good physical and mental condition. Then, once performances begin, he says, “you have to pace yourselves: rehearse, practice, sleep—in proportional amounts.”
The cycle “runs through Beethoven’s life,” Finckel explains. These sixteen works “cover the entire cycle of Beethoven’s creative thinking. They span the finest of his early period music, through this immense, heroic period and a couple of experimental quartets, to these five incredible late quartets.” Audiences and performers, Finckel continues, “are living through these extraordinary 57 years with this guy, who had such challenges, such highs and lows. It’s like getting on a train and riding with someone to their final destination.” He adds with a laugh: “And you can’t get off the train!”
For Øland, working through the cycle brought him closer to Beethoven the man. “We often talk about how this music is like something that dropped down from heaven,” the violinist observes. “But the music actually feels so human.” Shifts in Beethoven’s music, he says, capture the complexity and unpredictability of life. For example, he points to the transition from the slow Cavatina movement of the Op. 130 quartet into the movement known as the Grosse Fuge. “You go from something that destroys you with its beauty into something chaotic, in pain,” Øland says. Playing this music, he adds, is like looking in a mirror. “You get all the emotions reflected back at you and learn so much about yourself. It’s a human canvas.” Having performed the cycle, Øland thinks of Beethoven not as a musical god, “but as a very human being.”
“Beethoven struggled,” Finckel points out. “He struggled socially, he never had a permanent girlfriend or family, he struggled with his sister-in-law and his nephew. He struggled in polite company, and he struggled with his health.” The trials and obstacles that faced Beethoven throughout his life taught Finckel the key to being a musician. “Many young musicians—
as I once was!—are looking for ways, technically, to make things easier,” he says. “To play more effortlessly,
to have everything roll off the tip of their tongues.” With Beethoven, he learned that “the most satisfying solution to every problem is not necessarily the easy way out. The essence of the music lies in that striving and that struggle.”
Finckel compares the experience to climbing a mountain. “The summit is shrouded in mystery; you never reach it. But it’s not about reaching the top. It’s about what you do along the way. If you feel that you got to the top, you are no longer looking for everything, you become a non-artist.” My Skype connection becomes shaky. But Finckel is undeterred; nothing will dampen his enthusiasm for Beethoven. As our conversation winds down, he asks if I have everything I need. “I could talk about Beethoven quartets all day,” he admits. Then, a bulb lights up. A final thought comes to Finckel. “This cycle is like meeting sixteen very different people,” he says. “Each is such a wonderful character.”
Øland thinks fast and talks fast. It is easy to imagine him onstage with his colleagues, his mind buzzing with intensity and engagement. Before I leave him to prepare for his concert, I ask him what he thinks it’s like to be in the audience for the cycle. “It’s not something you experience every day,” Øland muses. “You might spend more time in the hall than in your home,” he says with a laugh. When they performed the cycle in Denmark, the quartet members carefully planned the concertgoer experience. They bought the onstage lighting and built the bar themselves. “It creates a bond between everyone—audience and quartet,” Øland says. “You’ve shared a big experience with a lot of people, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Tim Munro is a Grammy-winning flutist and former member of Eighth Blackbird. He is currently the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner.