Nancy Dalberg (1881-1949) is an important composer in Denmark, and her star is (finally) rising outside her native land. Dalberg studied with Carl Nielsen and wrote a large number of orchestral, chamber, and vocal works. She was the first Danish female composer to write a symphony, but she’s best remembered for her three string quartets.

Each quartet represents a landmark, and two receive their world premiere recordings with this release. Her first quartet, writing in 1915 shows the influence of Nielsen, especially in her sweeping melodies. Her harmonies have a post-Romantic richness that adds to the beauty of the music.

String quartet no. 2 was finished in 1922 and was the first to be published. Perhaps because it was credited to “N. Dahlberg,” the work soon entered the repertoire. Of all her works, this quartet is the one that’s most often performed both domestically and internationally.

The German musicologist Wilhelm Altmann wrote “considering the austerity and native strength of her music, it would never have occurred to me that [Dalberg] was a woman…. Her mastery of the technique of composition is remarkable, and she has something definite to say.” While the first part of that quote is cringe-worthy, the second part is quite accurate.

Dahlberg’s quartet is skillfully constructed. To my ears, the music didn’t especially resemble Nielsen’s, but it’s emotional weight did.

Dahlberg’s third string quartet, written five years later was first performed in 1929. Yet despite the popularity of the second quartet, the work was never published. In many ways, it’s a more adventuresome work than the second. Dahlberg pushes the limits of tonality. Her melodies dissolve into chromatic passages. Minor seconds about in her harmonies. The tonal centers seem to shift, sliding up or down as the music demands.

The Nordic String Quartet plays to perfection. Articulation is exceptionally clean, and ensemble work impressively precise. The quartet (as their name suggests) has an affinity for Scandinavian composers. That love comes through in their performances. These are performances that command attention. And that attention is well-rewarded by the depth and quality of Dalberg’s music.

Nancy Dalberg: String Quartets
Nordic String Quartet