Brightness Mirrors Solemnity

The word “unbearable” may seem an odd description to apply to a stunning performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor (Op. 132), but when the Danish String Quartet played the work on Thursday in the Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House, there was an almost unbearable intensity to its searing interpretation of the slow movement.

Beethoven wrote the quartet after he had recovered from a serious illness in 1825, and the four somber voices in the Adagio, which he titled “Holy Song of Thanks From a Convalescent to the Divinity,” unfold with the dignity of pallbearers. The sunnier mood that ensues signifies the composer’s newfound health.

This was the ensemble’s third performance at Scandinavia House; it first performed there in 2004 as the Young Danish String Quartet. It has since dropped “young” from its name, although its members — Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, violinists; Asbjorn Norgaard, violist; and Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin, cellist — are all under 30.

While the event on Thursday was scantily attended, New York audiences will have plenty more opportunities to hear the group soon. Beginning in the 2013-14 season, it will be part of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two program.

The quartet, which gave its professional debut in the 2002 Copenhagen Festival and has had one change in personnel since, initially resisted programming pinnacles of the repertory, like the late Beethoven quartets, wisely deciding to perform them when the players felt they could offer a distinctive interpretation.

That they certainly did here, giving one of the most powerful performances of Opus 132 I’ve heard live or on disc. The musicians, acutely attuned to one another, didn’t appear to be on autopilot for even a millisecond, with every nuance, phrase and gesture beautifully wrought.

While there were plentiful moments of tonal beauty in the Beethoven and in the group’s impressive renditions of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” and Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer”), there was also a raw grittiness that rendered these interpretations particularly memorable.

By Vivian Schweitzer, The New York Times