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CD Review

Niels Wilhelm Gade

BIS 516

Quartets for Strings

  • Quartet #1 in F minor (1851)
  • Quartet #2 in E minor (1877)
  • Quartet #3 in D Major, Op. 63 (1888)
The Kontra Quartet
BIS-CD-516 Time: 68:36 DDD
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The only published quartet of Danish composer Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890) is collected here with the manuscript versions of two others. Gade was at the forefront of Danish musical society at the time of his death. Known primarily for his active concertizing, Gade had close ties with the German romantics: he conducted the première of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and later assumed the directorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig.

Gade's music feels impassioned, but he is mostly Sturm without the Drang. The notes rise. The notes fall. And somehow they catch our ears – the illusion of conflict projected by clever dynamics. The late (published) quartet in D Major is the most accomplished in this respect. Devoid of regionalisms, personal quirks, or blatant homage to any favorite composer, Gade effects a sort of tonal Esperanto. With the irregularities of dialect abolished, he leaves us with a tongue that is palatable to everyone, but which no one would ever mistake as his own.

Despite this pandering to the classical everyone, the Kontra Quartet, led by Anton Kontra, offers splendid and fluent accounts of these works. Attacks are bold and precise; some fast tempos are quite exhilarating, especially for the first violin, which is nearly accorded a solo role (Gade himself trained as a soloist). Kontra's Strad has a beautiful tone, but he's too forward for my taste. Aside from that imbalance, the BIS production is first-rate.

Following along with Knud Ketting's notes, perhaps the listener can derive an academic satisfaction in deconstructing the passacaglia of the F minor quartet. These earlier works are more challenging. Gade's major key piece is like staring into a field of too bright flowers. Poppies! Poppies!

Copyright © 1998, Robert J. Sullivan

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