Back in 2012 and 2013, the members of the Danish String Quartet, who appear at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 26, had an unusual traveler accompany them on a tour through Denmark and England: a phenomenologist named Simon Hoffding. Then a doctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, he was troubled by a philosophical question: “What kind of self is present when the musician is deeply into his music?”
Being asked to think about how they think was no easy task, the violist Asbjorn Norgaard, 31, said over lunch at Tanglewood this past summer: Playing, after all, takes place “on such a subconscious level.” Even so, in his dissertation, Mr. Hoffding used interviews with the quartet’s players to come up with a taxonomy of how top musicians experience their performances.
There’s “standard playing,” which any amateur might aspire to. Rarely, for professionals, there’s “absent-minded playing.” Occasionally musicians are under stress — say, from an audience interruption — and labor to return to normality.
And, most rare and interesting, there’s “deep absorption,” when players enter a kind of trance, a state of “euphoric joy” in which they have complete control and yet feel almost disembodied. Think of it as the equivalent of how an athlete gets “in the zone.”
In a golden age for young string quartets — think JACK, Ébène, Escher,Attacca, Doric, Chiara, Spektral, Calidore and many, many more — the Danish String Quartet has drawn almost unanimous critical praise, particularly for its performances of Nielsen, Beethoven and others with theChamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. On record, it has set down roguish Haydn and poised Brahms, as well as Scandinavian folk music, a Dacapo release called “Wood Works,” and an outstanding survey of first quartets by Thomas Adès, Per Norgard and Hans Abrahamsen, on EMV. .
Theirs is playing of unusual, and unusually effective, liberty. When at their best, their tone throbs with joy.
“All Scandinavians feel like they have a bit of an anarchist inside them,” Mr. Norgaard said. “If someone tells us what to do, or what to wear, we go, like, ‘That’s dictatorship.’ We don’t feel boxed in by playing this old music that everyone else is playing. It’s just a canvas that we can work on. That being said, I don’t think that we are crazy. We are respectful.”
The starting point for any of their interpretations, Mr. Sorensen, 33, said, “is to try to have as much freedom as possible.” But, added Mr. Oland, 32, who shares duties in the first violin chair, “you can’t be free if you haven’t prepared well on a technical level. The main structure of it doesn’t change — maybe a little bit, but it’s not completely free. Freedom comes from being in control, in a way.”
It also comes from trust, in this case built over many years. The three Danes — and their cellist at the time, Carl-Oscar Osterlind — met at a summer camp, for all ages and most abilities, run by the Danish Amateur Orchestra Association.
“It’s not like this American summer camp stuff,” Mr. Oland said. “You play in two different orchestras during the day, and at night you play chamber music until you faint. We met there when we were something like 13, 14. We grew up there together, had our first beers there together, played a lot of soccer, played a lot of music, just formed a friendship that we have today.”
In 2001, when Mr. Sorensen entered the Royal Danish Academy of Music, they began lessons with Tim Frederiksen, whom the quartet refers to as “the godfather” of Danish chamber music: Once a violist in an incarnation of a different Danish String Quartet, he has also trained, among others, the superb all-female Nightingale Quartet.
Mr. Frederiksen focused the quartet’s repertoire, starting with Haydn’s “Emperor” and Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, began lessons that could last four or five hours at a time and insisted on throwing them into the public eye as early as possible. Opportunities opened up to play in front of chamber music societies across Denmark, particularly after the group won the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s Chamber Music Competition in 2004, as the Young Danish String Quartet.
After recording committed accounts of the complete Nielsen quartets for Dacapo, the quartet took a year off. In the process, its original cellist chose a solo career, and Mr. Sjolin, 34, then a student in Stockholm, joined the remnants. He blended in quickly, as the new foursome, having dropped the “Young” adjective, prepared for and then won the London International String Quartet Competition in 2009.
“Often you read about quartets changing a member,” Mr. Sorensen said, “and it takes like a year to try out different people. But from the first day, it just worked out.”
Since then, the quartet has been helped by rising-star programs like the BBC’s New Generation Artists initiative and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two. They essay a balanced repertoire, with a healthy smattering of new music — including, this season, a new quartet, “Swans Kissing,” by Rolf Wallin — among a diet of Haydn, Shostakovich and predominantly late Beethoven, scotching the notion that Beethoven is something that must be approached cautiously, especially by artists who might be considered less mature.
How do they choose their repertoire? “Sit down with a lot of beers, and a list,” Mr. Oland said.
Mr. Norgaard said they approached some notorious challenges without particular concern. “We would do all the late Beethovens first,” he said, “which was a no-go for any other quartet. It came very naturally.”
If their late Beethoven is perhaps unexpected, they have surprising gaps, too. Ravel haunts them, though their Debussy is exquisite. Mozart was tried early on but has disappeared from their repertoire.
“I’m a little bit scared of Mozart, actually,” Mr. Sjolin confided. “Scared is not the word. Every time, for some reason, it’s very, very difficult. It’s always two tempi, and either both of them work or none of them work.”
“The opening of the ‘Dissonance,’” Mr. Sorensen said. “We never really nailed that one.”
What they have nailed is a particular style, in demeanor if not in playing. The reputation of their beards precedes them, though that facial hair is more kempt than it once was. Their fashion is hipsterish, without irony or a sense of being mere appliqué. In Copenhagen, one of their concert series has its own line of craft beer, brewed by the Frederiksberg Bryghus. At their own DSQ Festival, they invite friends to play with them, do the vacuuming and turn the lights out at the end of the night.
“We found a perfect little spot,” Mr. Sorensen said, “which is an old girls’ school from the late 19th century, a beautiful place with room for about 150. There’s a soul in this place. This is a very lo-fi thing we have going on.”
There is no admission fee, Mr. Norgaard said, but there is a tip jar. “We have very pretentious programming, with an actor doing monologues from Tolstoy with Janacek quartets,” he said. “But it is a concert situation where people realize who is sending out the concert. It’s not some organization with a voice that tells you to shut off your cellphone. You go into our living room, and we want to play some music for you.”
The classical music field is, they agreed, often too eager to change things up simply to attract new audiences. “It’s healthy to try out new things,” Mr. Sorensen said. But “you can smell if something is just packaging.”
So their approach is refreshingly unapologetic. “When I enjoy musicians playing concerts,” Mr. Norgaard said, to murmurs of approval from his fellow musicians, “it’s when they’re very honest. We experiment a lot, and you can say that we are breaking down barriers, blah, blah, blah. But at the same time, we don’t do anything. We actually leave the music alone.
“What we’re saying, is that you can be easygoing, that you can have fun, and be very serious and deep at the same time. There’s no conflict there. You can have very funny rehearsals about sad pieces of music. It’s easier to be deep and serious, if you just have fun.”David Allen