There is a tendency for chamber groups nowadays to sport unusual, or interesting or even humorous names: the Kronos Quartet or Trio con Brio to name but two. On such a system, the Danish String Quartet (DSQ) must rank rather low indeed. However, what the DSQ lacks with dull nomenclature, they more than make up for with playing that is always engaging, frequently distinctive and often bubbling over with good humour.
Winner of the Carl Nielsen Prize in 2011 and appointed to the Lincoln Centre Chamber Music Society, this young and image-conscious Danish quartet is renowned for the powerful impact of its stage presence. The programming for tonight’s concert was very satisfying and certainly more conventional than their attire. Nielsen of course is de rigueur for the DSQ. His poetic and passionateString Quartet no. 3 paired nicely with the classical elegance of Haydn’s Op.20 no. 5 while Beethoven’s sublime and profound penultimate quartet Op 131in C sharp minor was a fitting conclusion to the concert.
The String Quartet in F minor Op.20 no. 5 is part of Haydn’s “Sun” Quartets which he composed as a well-established Kapellmeister in Esterháza palace. It reflects Haydn’s movement away from the courtly galant style, as he explores deeper elements of expression. The opening Allegro moderato was finely balanced with the other instruments allowing Sørensen on first violin to sing out. Right from the start, I was impressed how the group seemed to think as one, effortlessly communicating with one another. The anguish of the Menuetto was well brought out by the plaintive violin melodies of Sørensen and Ølsen. The forbidding mood of the first half of this movement found respite in the light-hearted Trio. Haydn was fond of surprise silences in this work and the DSQ used these rests for comic effect. The finale, which is marked sotto voce for two-thirds of the movement, quietly thrilled with nervous energy. The DSQ made sure that the forte was truly explosive and shocking when it did come towards the end.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was in Nielsen’s boldly assertive String Quartet no. 3 in E flat major that I felt the DSQ was most at home. They played with a daring which comes from the powerful combination of confidence and familiarity which suited the opening Allegro con brio wonderfully. Here in particular, Nørgaard on viola and Sjølin on cello had more of a chance to shine than in the previous work imbuing their melodies with passion and engaging in humorous dialogue in the pizzicato section. The hymn-like quality of the second movement was deeply felt by all, each using an intense vibrato to project the depth of emotion. The DSQ conveyed a great stillness on the reiteration of the first subject. Nørgaard was able to coax a deeply mellifluous tone from his viola, allowing the final notes to stretch forth and peacefully die away. Playfulness was the order of the day in the third movement Allegretto pastorale and this mood was intensified for the jolly invigorating finale. Once again, the exuberance, and at times the cheekiness of the interplay between the instruments in this movement were most enchanting, meriting an enthusiastic applause.
The late quartets of Beethoven are the Himalayas of their genre, and it was with the characteristic chutzpah of youth that the DSQ launched into arguably its greatest, String Quartet no. 14 in C sharp minor Op.131. Consisting of seven movements of labyrinthine complexity, it is played without a break and makes huge demands technically, musically and emotionally on the musicians. The opening Adagio fugue had a collective introspective quality; quietly and respectfully the DSQ managed to create a sacred stillness. I was most impressed by the ability of the quartet to switch instantly and as one from the spiritual to the savage, from the plaintive to the passionate in this piece. The furious headstrong fifth movement Presto was replaced by a shimmering, soulful meditative reflection on life in the sixth movement Adagio. Wagner described the final seventh movement as “the fury of the world’s dance… that whirls us to the abyss”. There was a harshness, even savageness, in the attack and in the instruments’ tone in this finale which spared us nothing, leading us inexorably to the edge of the abyss. This was an utterly compelling performance that marks the DSQ as a great quartet. One minor quibble to be made about this performance, however: there are pieces, and Beethoven’s Op.131 is one of them, which are so profound and cathartic that no encores should follow. The encores of Danish and Irish folk music, while charmingly played, were a let-down after this Beethovenian drama.