Pulsating energy with all the power of youthful creativity driving it on – such is the immediate impact of Nielsen’s first quartet, especially when played by young and committed players for whom Nielsen is as familiar as Beethoven. Early reviews of the first public performance ten years after it was written were full of praise: The ten-year-old quartet provided a breath of youth and freshness that did the heart good. There was a pace and power in this beginner’s work that delighted the audience. Clearly this beginner knew what he was doing as the youth and freshness have lasted well over a hundred years.
The opening theme fairly rockets off the page and the whole movement scarcely pauses to draw breath as the second theme is cast in much the same mould as the first, so much so that the movement feels almost monothematic. There is a brief pause at the end of the exposition before the repeat comes tearing back. It might not seem possible but the development builds up the tension even further and it is only in the recapitulation that time is taken out to reflect a little more peacefully on the theme. The coda takes the music to a new level before collapsing in exhaustion.
For the slow movement the tempo marking of Andante amoroso probably says it all – a richly romantic theme, imaginatively expanded, a faster second section with an urgent undertow, the return of the first theme, a gentle coda, amoroso in every bar.
The Scherzo is inevitably full of off-beat ideas in amongst the driving rhythm leading to a deliciously folksy Trio with imitations of all sorts of strange instruments. There is even a bizarre call to attention ahead of the return of the main section. The finale sets off another pulsating journey with brief episodic diversions concluding with a suitably triumphant conclusion.