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The Royal Danish Orchestra has been adding to its collection of fine stringed instruments for centuries – but there is revolution as well as evolution behind its distinctive string sound, which is unmistakable whatever the repertoire and whoever the conductor, finds Andrew Mellor
Main image An aerial view of the Royal Danish Orchestra in 2018 Bottom images Musicians of the orchestra’s viola, cello and double bass sections

There here is a sport among Copenhagen’s music critics. It involves attempting to define the distinct playing style and sound culture of the Royal Danish Orchestra while speculating as to how much those things are connected to the ensemble’s age. With a playing history dating back to 1448, this is the oldest orchestral institution in the world.

Det Kongelige Kapel (‘The Royal Chapel’), as it is known locally, is the house ensemble for the Royal Danish Opera but also gives symphonic concerts throughout the season at Copenhagen’s modern opera house. The ensemble has counted great composers among its members (Dowland and Nielsen) and has worked with a string of iconic conductors: Bernstein, Boulez, Furtw㭧ler, Karajan, Klemperer, Knappertsbusch, Kubelik, Ormandy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Rattle and Walter, to name just a few.

Whoever’s on the podium and whatever the repertoire, this orchestra’s distinctive sound is unmistakable. Of course, it is also ultimately g indefinable, which only makes the exercise of trying to define it more tantalising. ‘The strings always strike me as producing a certain noble, cultivated and humanistic sound,’ says Thomas | Michelsen, a Copenhagen critic for 25 years, now I with the daily broadsheet Politiken. ‘It is a sound that has a wonderful depth to it. But despite the weight, it is never punchy or imposing.’ The | words ‘depth’ and ‘darkness’ recur frequently in conversation with many journalists, fans and orchestra members.

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About The Strad

We examine the 1677 ‘Romanov’ Nicolò Amati viola and the Royal Danish Orchestra’s instrument collection. Manfred Honeck explains how playing viola informs his conducting and Linus Roth discusses Weinberg. Plus the first in a two-part Berg Masterclass, with Leila Josefowicz.