Danish String Quartet rewards its patrons with rugged beauty

Herbst Theatre was strikingly full on Monday, Feb. 19, for the first San Francisco recital by the Danish String Quartet — so much so that more than one audience member remarked on the turnout and speculated about the cause. Was it the end of the holiday weekend? The cold weather? Some random confluence of disparate factors?

Call me an optimist, but I prefer to think that local audiences just knew what a thoroughgoing thrill was in store. This formidable ensemble, made up of violinists Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, violist Asbjorn Norgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjölin, has made its reputation with a canny mix of standard repertoire and contemporary classics (a recent CD featuring music of Thomas Adès, Per Norgard and Hans Abrahamsen finds the group at its adventurous finest). And it brings to everything a distinctively rugged, dark-hued tonality that gives even the most luminescent music a sort of subdued, moody charge.

Monday’s program, presented by San Francisco Performances, was the group’s first appearance in the city, although it has appeared regularly with Cal Performances, Music@Menlo and other Bay Area presenters. So there was plenty of opportunity for music lovers to understand what they were in for.

Yet even then, the vigor and showmanship on display — a combination of expansive eloquence and gritty, nuts-and-bolts precision — can only have landed with a jolt. In music by Bartók and Beethoven, these players mustered a degree of expressive unanimity and rhythmic sleekness that were astonishing to witness.

Those technical achievements, in turn, were put to the service of impeccably conceived readings of these familiar works. Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1, with its gradual heightening (of both tempo and emotional intensity) across three movements, charted its course with unerring specificity, from the sepulchral, sinuous lines of the opening fugue to the burst of high spirits with which the piece concludes.

And in Beethoven’s F-Major Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1, which occupied the second half of the program, the ensemble layered a woody veneer on its sonority that made every section of the piece — from the vigorously dramatic opening through the broad-beamed slow movement and into the final treatment of a Russian folk melody — sound at once lively and profound.

Since folk melodies figured in both works, it seemed only fitting that the central part of the program was devoted to folk music from Nordic countries. This collection of waltzes, wedding songs, folk melodies and other popular material — drawn from throughout Scandinavia and arranged by members of the quartet — features on the group’s excellent new CD for ECM New Series, “Last Leaf.”

But hearing the music played live was something else, an affecting procession of moods and colors that conveyed a sense of the traditional lifestyles that gave rise to this material. (One Danish folk tune bore the piquant title, “Five Sheep, Four Goats.”)

To be there in person felt like being a guest at a country feast that had secured the services of the world’s greatest wedding band. A beautiful song by Carl Nielsen, a short, chorale-like number whose title went by too swiftly to catch, served as a single, gorgeous encore.