Once and Future Folk Songs in "Last Leaf"

Jan 28, 2019

Every so often, a new album is released that knocks the breath out of me. The Danish String Quartet’s “Last Leaf” does just that, over and over again.

This is part of a series of WCRB blog posts that bring you a personal perspective on richly rewarding CD releases you may not encounter otherwise.

A little background on the Danish String Quartet: they’re phenomenally talented musicians who cut their teeth on string quartet standards like Haydn and Brahms, winning acclaim for their signature warmth and vitality. They are, unsurprisingly, Danish; I once saw a tweet comparing them to vikings, at least in appearance, and it wasn’t that far off base. 

Speaking of vikings: Some of the pieces on DSQ's otherworldly "Last Leaf" are more than 1,000 years old, like "Drømte mig en drøm" (I Had a Dream). Translated from ancient runes and arranged for modern instruments, it’s the oldest known piece of secular Nordic music, written on the “last leaf” of a text chronicling early Danish history.

Other pieces on the album, though not quite as old, offer lenses into other periods, like “Stædelil,” a medieval ballad about a young knight. 

There are dances, too – minuets and waltzes and dances you won't find anywhere else beyond certain small Nordic towns. And then, the brilliant original compositions, like Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen’s reel “Shine You No More, ”perfect in its construction, from the zippy opening to the unearthly middle to the blazing end. This album spans millennia. How cool is that?

The liner notes for “Last Leaf” emphasize that “Nordic folk music is traditionally music with a defined function: to accompany dancing.” But the pieces on this album aren't like any dances I've ever heard -- an undercurrent of loneliness runs through even the liveliest ones.

Tom Huizenga said it well on NPR’s All Things Considered: 

“You can hear the shuffling feet of dancers and wheezy squeeze-boxes in these arrangements. They can be vigorous and earthy or evocative and wistful. Or both at once, like the tune "Æ Rømeser," from the village of Sønderho on the southern tip of the Danish island of Fanø. It's a dance, sure, but it dances with a tear in its eye.”

From start to finish, “Last Leaf” treads a careful line between cheer and melancholy, and it blows me away every time I listen. Each piece on the album is at once familiar and extraordinary, pairing traditional folk rhythms with ethereal chords and haunting melodies to make everything that much sharper and more brittle.

Perhaps that’s why listening to the album end-to-end has become something of a winter ritual for me. There are evenings when, on my way home from work, I fight my way through Boston’s frozen winds and icy streets, “Last Leaf” accompanying me all the while -- it’s an album that fits when the temperature drops.

Listen to the Danish String Quartet's "Last Leaf" in its entirety: