“When we play, we should always give the impression to improvise. Always.”

An idea can change the world. Be naive enough not to be held back by objections of a practical nature. When the idea of a String Quartet Biennale in Amsterdam initially took shape, there was indeed much scepticism. But if risk is part of the fun in a musician’s life, this definitely goes for a festival organizer as well. Next month, from Saturday the 25th of January onwards, the Biennale is taking place for the second time. One week of daylong celebrations of the string quartet at the magnificent Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ: could this be a typical result of Dutch audacity? It’s in any case something not to be missed by anyone who holds dear of its incomparable repertoire.

“The public should never feel too comfortable and be able to predict what you are going to do. If they can guess what will happen, the magic is gone.” My resolve to interview the Quatuor Danel and talk to them about the three concerts they will give at the long-awaited second edition of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam (25 January – 1 February 2020) suddenly seems a little bit spurious. Luckily, Marc Danel and Vlad Bogdanas, the first violinist and violist of the French quartet, cannot say much about the new piece by Lera Auerbach (°1973) that they will premiere during the festival on Thursday January 30th. “We have the parts, but didn’t practice it yet. As a quartet we’ll start working on it as of December.”

I’m meeting these friendly gentlemen end of November in Antwerp, five stories high in what could be called the rehearsal attic of the Bourla theatre. They just finished practicing the fifteenth string quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich (opus 144), the remarkable final work of a cycle the Quatuor Danel already performed live and in full for almost thirty times. There’s still much discussion going on. Sometimes, to rehearse means you do as much talking as playing: it’s somehow part of the game. “But if you do this job, it means you love it. We profoundly like the adrenaline.” Marc Danel sounds absolutely adamant about this: “the audience cannot experience music to the full if you are not somehow enjoying yourself.” Bogdanas agrees, adding that “once you tried this life, it’s difficult to switch to something else.” Switching towards what will happen end of January, we enter a conversation about the age difference between Franck and Brahms, singing the violin, and conflicts between the right and left hand. “I’m curious to see how things will develop after the high standard that was set two years ago …”

In 2018 the Quatuor Danel performed multiple times during the first edition of the String Quartet Biennale in Amsterdam. The quartet also gave the final concert. Looking back, what kind of souvenirs do the two of you have from this wonderfully ambitious festival?

Marc Danel: My first remembrance dates back to before the festival actually took place, already some five years ago. Yasmin Hilberdink, the artistic director of the festival, asked us what people would think about this kind of project. I have heard many saying that this will not come about. People were very dubious that this could work. But then again: reasonable people always tend to say no. So she was very courageous to carry on and most of all idealistic as a child. So that’s why it happened. When the festival finally took place for the first time, we felt really at home. There was a very warm feeling between the many quartets that were present.

Vlad Bogdanas: The whole thing was indeed visionary and everything worked perfectly well in the end. I really enjoyed many aspects of it, like the fact that we had time to meet with other quartets and do unique projects with them. I’m thinking back to ‘The Impossible Voyage’, a six hour musical journey through the string quartet oeuvre of three iconic composers like Beethoven, Britten and Shostakovich, which we did together with Cuarteto Casals and the Doric String Quartet. I’m really looking forward to the second edition and curious to see how things will develop after the high standard that was set two years ago.

What is, in your own words, so unique about the string quartet that it merits a festival of its own?

Danel: [prompt reply, Ed.] The repertoire …

Bogdanas: It’s true that it all starts from there.

Danel: Most of the greatest composers have given the best of themselves in the string quartet genre. There is for example only one concerto for violin from Beethoven. But he did write sixteen string quartets. Every quartet has its own special sound, but this unity is made possible because the repertory is so amazing. So it’s clearly that which makes the string quartet extraordinary. If you would do a biennale for piano trio, you would have gaps in the repertoire. If you would do it for the string trio, it would more or less last for one day. Other ensembles do not have such cycles as we do, from Mozart over Beethoven and Mendelssohn to Bartók, Shostakovich and Weinberg.

Starting a tradition

Both Danel and Bogdanas consider championing and performing all of Mieczysław Weinbergs (1919-1996) seventeen string quartets to be the biggest achievement of the Quatuor Danel so far. “I am really proud of the many Weinberg cycles that we already did at major halls around the world, especially this year because of the composers birthday”, says the viola player. “After all those hours studying copies of manuscripts and practicing, it felt like starting a tradition. It also made us feel as if the composer was a member of the family so to speak. Weinberg has some Moldavian origins and my grandfather was from Moldova. This touches me.” When the quartet played Weinberg for the first time back in the ’90, nobody believed in this music. “We had to fight hard for it, because people found it pointless”, Marc Danel remembers. “There were barely any recordings. We also had to copy the parts for ourselves and couldn’t relate to any interpretation.” Things cannot be more different for that other composer with whom the Quatuor Danel and many other famous quartets like the Ruysdael String Quartet and the Dudok Quartet will kick off every weekday of the Biennale in Amsterdam. For the morning sessions of its second edition the programmers decided to move on from the ‘Early Haydn’ and his opus 20 ‘Sun’ quartets to Beethoven’s first set of six quartets, opus 18.

Haydn his opus 20 is said to be a landmark in the development of the string quartet. Do the Beethoven opus 18 string quartets exert the same influence, not only in the life of the composer but also in the history of the genre?

Danel: I would say it’s different, because Haydn started something that Beethoven afterwards used and brought to its highest peak. By that I don’t mean that Beethoven was a better composer than Haydn, who was admittedly one of the greatest geniuses writing for the medium. Just listen to his ‘Seven Last Words’ or the second quartet of opus 54: nothing can be improved, so to say. But the Beethoven quartets are certainly the most impressive cycle that you can find. According to Norbert Brainin (1923-2005), who was the first violinist of the Amadeus Quartet, he brought the string quartet to an impressive spiritual level that no other artist in any genre surpassed, apart from maybe Schubert in his last quartet. It’s only an opinion of course, but I am happy to share it. Because the opus 18 quartets are the first by Beethoven, and in spite of the clear influences by Mozart in number 5 and the style and spirit of Haydn in number 2, they are in itself already very important. I guess that in two years’ time the organizers of the Biennale would like to present the five middle quartets to start off the day. Which makes sense of course: a festival celebrating the string quartet genre without Beethoven is hardly imaginable.

Bogdanas: I find it difficult to compare the Haydn set of opus 20 quartets with the opus 18. After having played the Beethoven cycle a few times, I perceive his quartets more as a whole. I don’t make a separation between the different pieces, which are all parts of one big story. Already from the beginning, the idiom is obviously Beethoven and in that sense self-explanatory. If you listen to ‘La Malinconia’ for example, the last part of opus 18 number 6, this movement is already looking forward towards the late quartets.

For the ‘Early Beethoven’ concert you will combine Beethoven with one of the composers on which the Quatuor Danel has made its fame: Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). As contemporaries, both in time and space, the link between Weinberg and Dmitri Shostakovich is straightforward. But is it fair to assume that Weinberg also got inspired by the oeuvre of Beethoven?

Bogdanas: [prompt reply, Ed.] Oh yes. Who wasn’t!

Danel: It’s very difficult for a composer to come after Beethoven and not take into account what he did, even though in many ways Weinberg comes close to Schubert as well. There is an absolutely clear and very recognizable quotation in the fifteenth string quartet of Weinberg which is the rhythm of the head theme of opus 18 number 1.

Bogdanas: And the gnomic last quartet of Weinberg has something to do with the last quartet of Beethoven. Is its compact pithiness a nod to Beethoven’s opus 135? He wrote this equally bright and quite simple string quartet for the Borodin Quartet.

What’s the story behind Weinberg’s Improvisation & Romance (1950). Like you did with his string quartet cycle, the Quatuor Danel also premiered this work. To what extent is this music improvised for example; what can the public expect from this music?

Marc Danel | Photo: Marco Borggreve

Danel: The first violin is indeed playing alone for quite a long time in that piece, which could be improvised if you like. Actually, when we play we should always give the impression to improvise. Always. You have to be very empathic when you are on stage and try to be the composers voice: the wire, so to speak, between his musical personality and the public. That’s why we are always faithful to the text. But within the limits of the score, we have complete freedom and we should very much use that freedom. Because first you have to make the music yours, before giving it back to the audience. In any way, the public should never know what you are going to do. If they can guess what will happen, the magic is gone. The Romance on the other hand sounds much like the Soviet romanticism of the 20th century. Like most of the Russian composers, Weinberg has been writing a lot for cinema, cartoons, circus and so on. For example, he wrote the music for the Russian version of Winnie-the-Pooh. Unsurprisingly, this Romance could be an amazing film song. It also resembles a little bit the Lieder of Schubert.

Bogdanas: To play the Improvisation & Romance at the Biennale was definitely Yasmin’s idea. After we performed the premiere in Luzern, she came up to us and asked if we could combine it with Beethoven. It’s not the first time Weinberg uses the word improvisation to describe his music. One of the movements of his fifth string quartet (the Lento from opus 27, Ed.) bears the same title and has long solos like in the Improvisation.

The second concert the Quatuor Danel will play during the Biennale is part of the so-called ‘Selected by’ series. The audience will discover two Belgian romantic composers: César Franck (1822-1890), who was born in Liège but moved to Paris early on in his life, and the unfortunate Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894), who had Franck as one of his teachers. What were the reasons behind this selection?

Danel: I think the string quartet by Franck is a very, very underrated piece, but at the same time also very telling. If you go to the conservatory, and you ask people the difference in age between Brahms and Franck, they will probably tell you that Franck was born ten years after Brahms. But actually he was born eleven years before. Franck is exactly the middle between Mendelssohn and Brahms. But by times his music really sounds like it belongs to the 20th century: a period in which he never lived … His quartet is not very much played, nor has it been recorded very often. But it’s an epic work. We – and in this case I think I can speak for the four of us – consider it to be one of the biggest masterpieces of the 19th century. With my students, I did a little game once. I played them some extracts of the first version of our recording of Franck’s string quartet and asked them how old the guy was. They all said under thirty!

Bogdanas: And that’s the interesting point with this programme: it combines the deepness of the piece by Lekeu, who died remarkably young, and the freshness of Franck, who wrote his string quartet when he was very old. It turned out to be one of his very last pieces, but it seems like it was written by a young man. Lekeu his Molto adagio, sempre cantante doloroso is totally different in character. At some point, you can imagine a sad, almost funeral-like procession.

Danel: The piece is headed by a verse of Saint Matthew “Mon âme est triste jusqu’à la mort”. Accidently, the composer died in a very unfortunate way, after eating some intoxicated food. His flirtation with death is of course very much part of romanticism, but the music in itself is also extremely dark, emotional and quite complex. It took time to get the shape of it. You have to be very concentrated to keep a sort of tension. But also Franck is anything but easy, because it has so many notes … (chuckles)

“A thing with rituals”

The string quartet by Franck is a notoriously long piece, lasting approximately fifty minutes. Which brings me to the question: how important is stamina for a string quartet? And is this something you can work on?

Bogdanas: The last movement of Franck is crazy. Some parts are really difficult, almost unplayable even.

Danel: To play an instrument is a sport. You really have to be in shape. In the run-up to a concert, I try to sleep in the afternoon, take some vitamins, eat pasta or rice a few hours before and try to come to myself and concentrate before going on stage.

Bogdanas: I think the first one who spoke about this was the great violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999). He mentioned this ‘hygiène de vie’ as being of the utmost importance for a musician. Nowadays, we travel a lot, which makes it even more challenging.

Danel: In whatever profession, If you want to deliver peak performances you need to have energy levels that are above normal to cope with the though rhythm that is required to do so. You also don’t want to spend your energy before going on stage, because it has to happen in that precise moment. Personally, that’s why I hate to play through before a concert. All of us – and by that I mean every string quartet or musician – also has a thing with rituals. You could even call it a sort of superstition. Since her childhood, there are some things of my daughter that I have with me at every concert. For me it’s a kind of blessing.

Bogdanas: I always check the position of the feet of my music stand before the concert starts, to make sure they are in a certain way … (laughter) It’s a way of making my own space, because it is very important to feel at home on stage. And when we finish a piece, I will always turn my part the other way.

As a quartet player, you find yourself all the time very much out in the open compared to the members of an orchestra. I think this vulnerable position commands the biggest respect, but it also creates a lot of pressure. How do you deal with this?

Danel: What is especially difficult for us as a quartet is not only the pressure, but also the fact that how others are doing depends on you as well. This interdependency is sometimes very hard to deal with and always leads to crisis moments at some point. But if you do this job, it means you love it. Once you play, you are so happy, notwithstanding the tension it sometimes brings within the group. We profoundly like the adrenaline. I would really miss it, if I felt no pressure. A musician should stop immediately if he or she is not having fun on stage. And risk is part of the fun. I often tell my students that they don’t need to do drugs or drive 250 km/h on the motorway, because being a musician is like doing the most exciting things that in any case will bring you to the brink.

This sounds like anything but boring, but then again also quite counter-intuitive. Because the public in general doesn’t consider classical music to be something extremely mind-blowing …

Bogdanas: And that’s a big mistake of course. I’m a big hard rock and heavy metal fan, but I would say that the Beethoven string quartet opus 131 is definitely more subversive than most of the music that is being written today. In the truest sense of the word, there is so much rock-and-roll in this work. The challenge is to push the boundaries by testing how far we can bring the piece.

Danel: There are two things in which I strongly believe. Firstly, the audience cannot experience music to the full if you are not somehow enjoying yourself. It’s very important to shake things up while you’re playing. And secondly, the public should never feel too comfortable and be able to predict what you are going to do. Every interpretation has to be a lively one. The relation with the public should be different in every bar. It’s great for instance when there is a huge contrast between the lyricism and the sharpness within a phrase, as in the last movement of Mozart his ‘Dissonance’ quartet for example (KV 465).

Rules that free you up

The last concert in which the Quatuor Danel is involved is perhaps one of the most awaited of the whole Biennale, because it will present the Dutch premiere of Goetia – 72 in umbra lucis from the Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach. It’s a piece the quartet will perform together with the Netherlands Chamber Choir. For people that do not know her, what can you tell us about her work and this composition in particular?

Bogdanas: To be honest? Absolutely nothing. We have the parts, but didn’t practice it yet. As a quartet we’ll start working on it as of December. And a week before the Biennale we have a few days planned for rehearsals together with the choir. In any case, the concept is interesting and we expect a lot from it. Of course we know the sister piece of Auerbach for saxophone quartet and choir (72 Angels – In splendore lucis, Ed.). But I look very much forward to the sequel because this time it’s about 72 demons … (laughter) After the Biennale, we’ll also be playing the work in different venues in Holland as well as in Budapest.

Danel: I think this is maybe a good question to talk about how it is to play with singers. A voice is the biggest inspiration. Ever. The chance we have to spend one week with top singers and to share this work with them, is just amazing. I’m convinced that, with our instruments, the most important thing is to sing. For me, all my life, I’ve been trying to be a singer with my violin. Nevertheless, I think an instrument offers more possibilities of tessitura, articulation and dynamics.

Bogdanas: In Romanian we don’t say “to play an instrument”. We say “I sing the violin”. It’s a vocabulary thing that works with all the instruments. It’s always about singing.

According to the late Milan Škampa, the alto player of the Smetana Quartet, a string quartet is “the most beautiful prison in the world”. This is both a tempting but also sobering thought … What are your views on this?

Danel: Why does he compare it to a prison? Because on that I don’t completely agree. It is a prison because you have to see the same colleagues every single day … But I’ll have to mention Brainin once more, for me one of the greatest chamber musicians of the 20th century, who spoke about freedom and rules. The more you have rules, the more you can be completely free. As a first violin, for example in the first variation of the Andante of the Mozart quartet in A major (KV 464) that Beethoven admired so much, you can only sing freely if the others strictly follow the tempo. So rules can be very liberating as well.

Vlad Bogdanas | Photo: Marco Borggreve

Bogdanas: In the first place, we all came to the string quartet for different reasons. My father plays in a string quartet, so it just came to me by destiny. In the meantime, I think we are just addicted to the genre and profession. Look at Yovan for example (Markovitch, the cellist of the Quatuor Danel, Ed.) who already played in three different quartets. He cannot help it, although he had opportunities to do other things. But he just keeps coming back to it. Once you tried this life, it’s difficult to switch to something else.

I would also like to present to you a quote by another violist, Vladimir Bukač of the Quatuor Talich: “Il ne faut pas cacher qu’un quatuor est par essence un groupe conflictuel: il s’agit de la réunion de quatre individualités qui tentent, ensemble, de faire de l’art. Pensez juste à la question du tempo: comment aller ensemble avec quatre rythmes cardiaques différents? Donc, dans un quatuor, il est nécessaire que chacun trouve son compte sans empiéter sur l’autre. […] Par ailleurs, dans un quatuor, chaque voix est d’égale importance: il ne peut y avoir de domination, sinon c’est la catastrophe. C’est une école de l’humilité.” How important is it to be humble as part of a group of four, especially also as regards the music?

Danel: To be humble in music is surely something very important: you cannot put your ego in front. But I would not say that a quartet is conflictual by essence. Otherwise you believe that working together is in itself conflicting, while actually you are all on the same side and make use of the skills of every single member.

Bogdanas: Conflicts are also not the first thing that come to mind when I think about quartet playing, but at some point there will definitely be tensions. As in every relationship and especially in a wedding with four people. I’m even in conflict with myself sometimes, between the right hand and the left hand … (laughter)

Danel: When I teach a very young quartet, I ask the most stupid and at the same time provocative question you can imagine: who of the four is the most important? Most of the time the first violin will say the viola or the cello. The second violin will mention the first violin. The viola player is always the nicest person in the quartet, so he or she will prefer everyone. And the cellist doesn’t answer, because he would so much like to think about himself but doesn’t dare to. The right answer for me is that everyone should see him- or herself as being the most important of the group. If you do not believe that your role is essential, how can you do it well? Chamber music is by essence dialogue. And you can only dialogue if you have strong personalities, which should be revealed when working together. In the end, the goal is to be more and more yourself while you play.

I would like to round off the interview with three short questions. First, which memory in the history of the quartet is the most dear to you?

Bogdanas: Playing the octet by George Enescu (1881-1955) with my teacher and my father, who is the first violin of the Enescu Quartet, at the Enescu festival with my grandmother, my wife and my mother in the hall: that was quite something on a very personal level. I played the first viola part on that occasion.

Danel: I would like to mention all the cycles by Beethoven, Weinberg and Shostakovich that we already performed, because they are so amazing.

Imagine yourself on your deathbed for a moment, which string quartet (movement) would you like to hear one last time?

Danel: I’m not sure if I would like to hear a string quartet movement. It would remind me of my job … (laughter) I guess when you die, you want to have a certain peace, which is why I would probably listen to a very clear and beautiful soprano. The French classical trumpeter Maurice André (1933-2012) for example in Mozarts Queen of the Night.

Bogdanas: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door in the version by Guns N’ Roses.

Is there something you still dream of doing as a string quartet?

Danel: [prompt reply, Ed.] Sure. Many things. There are still halls and countries were we never played. And I would definitely like to record the whole Beethoven cycle as well as some of the masterly quartets by Schubert and Mozart. Or do the complete Shostakovich cycle in Moscow and the Weinberg in three places that are connected to him: Russia, Poland and Israel.

Bogdanas: As regards artistic wishes, there are some combinations that I would be happy to try, like the quartet by Fauré, one of the two sextets of Brahms and the octet by Enescu. This programme would make sense, because Enescu met Brahms in Vienna and Fauré was one of his teachers in Paris. I feel really touched by the music of Enescu. Like me, he was born in Romania, but spent most of his life in France.

  • WHAT: Interview with Marc Danel and Vlad Bogdanas, primarius and violist of the Quatuor Danel, on the occasion of the second edition of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam (25 January – 1 February 2020). During this festival, the quartet will perform music by Beethoven, Weinberg, Franck and Lekeu on Wednesday the 29th of January and give the Dutch premiere of Lera Auerbachs Goetia – 72 in umbra lucis for string quartet and choir the day after, Thursday 30th of January 2020.
  • WHO: Quatuor Danel [Marc Danel and Gilles Millet (violins), Vlad Bogdanas (viola), Yovan Markovitch (cello)]
    Quatuor Danel – https://www.quatuordanel.eu
    String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam – https://www.sqba.nl
  • PHOTO’S: © Marco Borggreve

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