Sometimes, Even the Young…

Reviews
13 February 2014 / New York Times

Sometimes, Even the Young…

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has a hit ensemble on its hands with the remarkable Danish String Quartet. This season the group began a three-year residency with the society’s CMS Two program for outstanding younger performers. Having played to acclaim last fall at the Kaplan Penthouse, the ensemble gave its first performance at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday afternoon. Demand was so great for this sold-out concert that an encore event of the same program was added for Monday night at the Rose Studio.

The enthusiastic response is well merited, as Sunday’s program demonstrated with insightful, sensitive and exciting accounts of Mendelssohn’s early Quartet in A minor (Op. 13), and two Beethoven quartets: No. 11 in F minor (Op. 95), “Serioso,” and No. 15 in A minor (Op. 132). The playing was so direct, confident and engrossing I almost forgot to notice that technical matters, like intonation, blending and balance, were impeccable. The group has released some impressive recordings on various labels.

The quartet made its New York debut 10 years ago at Scandinavia House when the players, who had met as students in Copenhagen, were all about 20. At the time the ensemble called itself the Young Danish String Quartet, which led to lots of ribbing, since the name implied the players were not planning on a long career. In recent years, they dropped “Young” from the name. In 2008 they had a change of personnel, when Fredrik Sjolin became the group’s cellist, joining the violinists Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and the violist Asbjorn Norgaard. Now they are all around 30 and still look very young, though three of them sport beards, especially Mr. Norgaard, who would fit right in with the Boston Red Sox.

On Sunday I was struck especially by the way these musicians play with a unanimity that must be a result of hard work but comes across as intuitive. Contrary to what you might expect from young performers, they seldom opt for tempos on the fast side or playing that maximizes excitement. Rather, conveying the layout and architecture of the music seems paramount. They are also excellent at revealing the emotional subtext of the music. In the second movement of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11, Mr. Sjolin brought a touch of stealthy danger to the seemingly innocent, descending solo phrase for cello that opens the second movement.

YouTube video of the Danish String Quartet shows the group in a BBC studio playing the magisterial first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 132 dressed in tattered jeans and T-shirts. You would have thought the musicians were still playing the piece informally on Sunday from the assurance and ease of their performance. They kept the tempo reined in a little during the quizzical second movement, allowing the strangeness of the succession of seemingly genial phrases to come through on its own. They brought glowing sound and mystical serenity to the great slow movement, a holy song of thanks.

The standing ovation was immediate and ardent. The quartet performed an encore, a Danish song of spring, Mr. Sorensen announced, arranged almost like a chorale and played with uncannily blended and tender sound.

Anthony Tommasini