Our guiding principle for choosing repertoire has always been pretty simple, we only perform music we like. Asbjørn Nørgaard

Born in Denmark and now in their mid-thirties, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (violin), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola) and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (cello) originally met at a country summer camp for amateur musicians when they were still in their teens. Performing together since the early 2000s, the musicians have been rehearsing and refining a chamber music repertoire under the tutelage of Tim Frederiksen, the renowned viola teacher and head of Chamber Music at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. The ensemble were then joined in 2008 by violin player Frederik Øland from Norway and started recording professionally, first as the “Young Danish String Quartet” before dropping the “young” part in 2012.

In their early albums, the ensemble explored the string quartet repertoire of Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Johannes Brahms or Robert Fuchs and also focused their attention on Danish composers such as Carl Nielsen (1865 – 1931), Per Nørgård (b. 1932) or Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952). But what really sets the quartet apart from similar ensembles is their recent endeavour to arrange Scandinavian folk music for a classical string quartet. Initiated with the remarkable Wood Works in 2014, the Danish String Quartet resume their exploration of the Nordic traditional repertoire with Last Leaf released on ECM Records on 22 September 2017 last.

Danish String Quartet - Last Leaf (2017)
Danish String Quartet – Last Leaf (2017)

The record’s title “Last Leaf” is a reference to the Codex Runicus, a 14th century codex written in runes and containing early Nordic laws. The last leaf of parchment in the codex features the song “Drømte mig en drøm” – “the oldest known secular song in Nordic countries” – arranged by the quartet. Strings feature throughout of course, but the record is also introduced with a hymn played on harmonium, and two other songs also include sparse glockenspiel and piano.

The repertoire recorded on the album ranges from a traditional Faroese medieval ballad (“Stædelil”) to Swedish polskas – either newly composed or from 19th century collections – or Norwegian waltzes. There are also Danish traditional tunes, minuets or “Sønderhonings” (“Æ Rømeser”), a unique traditional 18th century dance tune which is only found on the tiny island of Rømo, off the western coast of Denmark.

For obvious geographical reasons, the southern part of Norway and the western coast of Denmark have a lot more in common with Scotland and Northern England than with continental Europe. For instance, the quartet perform the magnificent “Unst Boat Song”, originally sung in the old Norse language which was spoken in overseas settlements such as on Unst, the northernmost inhabited island of the Shetland Islands. “The Dromer” is an English dance found in an 18th century Danish tune collection and is also known as a Scottish reel.

The electric “Shine you no more” is a newly composed reel by Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen which was partly inspired “by a harmonic progression in John Dowland’s “Flow my Tears””. The piece was first written in the early 17th century as part of “Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares”, a suite of instrumental pavans while the English Renaissance composer was in exile and working as a lutenist at the court of King Christian IV of Denmark. The theme was then reworked with new lyrics and “Shine you no more” is a quote from the song.

With the musicians focusing on a repertoire they enjoy playing, a palpable sense of energy and excitement immediately transpires from every piece on the record. At the same time, the ensemble mostly perform a repertoire originally written for one or two voices and not for a quartet. Not constrained by composers’ instructions, the quartet is then free to interpret and arrange the music for four voices as they sense it, playing around with pulse, intonation, dynamics and rhythm.

In doing so, the Last Leaf not only shines a fantastic new light on existing scores, but revisiting an older folk repertoire also naturally prompts the four musicians to compose new music in the process.