In the summers of 2006 and 2007, the Copenhagen-based Dacapo Records (which is supported by the Danish Arts Council Committee for Music) worked with the Danish String Quartet (formerly The Young Danish String Quartet), consisting of violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (who alternated in holding first chair), violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Carl-Oscar Østerlind, to record the four published string quartets by Carl Nielsen. During these sessions the quartet members were also joined by violist Tim Fredericksen for a recording of Nielsen’s only string quintet in G major, which was not published in Nielsen’s lifetime. These five performances were then released on a pair of SACD discs.
This year Dacapo decided to reissue the entire package as a single digital-only download, which is now available from ClassicsOnline. The album is entitled The Complete String Quartets. Note that I qualified this in the above paragraph by adding the adjective “published.” Some of Nielsen’s earliest efforts were string quartets. However, most of this music preceded the beginning of his studies at the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen and thus tends to get dismissed as juvenilia. Thus, the earliest work in the collection is the Opus 5 quartet in F minor, first performed in December of 1889, a little over three years after Nielsen completed his Conservatory studies. This begins a span that continues through 1906, the year of the Opus 44 quartet in F major.
In the chamber music genre Nielsen tends to be better known for his work with winds. What is most interesting about the five pieces in this collection (including the quintet) is that each has its own uniquely characteristic voice. One can recognize certain familiar rhetorical gestures, some of which would subsequently arise in the wind chamber music. However, both the quartets and the quintet reflect the work of a man who never seems content with saying the same thing twice. Thus, while his approach to structural architecture tends to be relatively conventional, each structure is filled with different approaches to both the grammatical foundations of harmonic progression and the rhetorical approaches to expressiveness.
The performances that the Danish String Quartet recorded show a clear and admiring appreciation for the uniqueness of each of these compositions. Dacapo has definitely done well to keep these recordings in circulation. Also, the decision to “go digital” overcomes the somewhat unbalanced nature of the original physical recordings. The first of these coupled Opus 13 in G minor (the second) with Opus 44 and added the quintet, composed after Opus 13, providing about an hour and twenty minutes of content. The second then paired up Opus 5 with Opus 14 in E-flat major for only a little more than an hour of music. The digital domain of an iTunes player (for example) will allow the listener to construct playlists for individual and/or chronological listening, through which the attentive listener may better appreciate the breadth of Nielsen’s expressiveness. That listener will probably also enjoy the booklet that is included as part of the download (along with a “virtual” album cover).