The String Quartet’s Best Hope

With its technique, unity and wide-ranging repertoire, the Danish String Quartet—currently on a U.S. tour—gives new life to a faded form.

The Danish String Quartet, which this season celebrates its 20th anniversary, isn’t the sort of group that toots its own horn, if you’ll pardon the expression. Beyond their abundant qualities on stage, its members exude typically Scandinavian modesty when not performing. So they’re not going to tell you how they are today’s best hope for the future of the string quartet—though I will. But you can judge for yourself if you happen to be in San Francisco on Wednesday or New York on Oct. 30, or in any of the seven other stops the quartet is making on its current U.S. tour, in which works by Purcell, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Benjamin Britten and the Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski will, variously, fill the bills. (In addition, the quartet returns to the U.S. in January and again in April, achieving an unusual, but welcome, omnipresence here.)

If you didn’t realize the dire straits in which string quartets now find themselves, you may not be alone. But this season marks the last for the Emerson Quartet, after more than 40 years. And, in even sadder news, North America’s finest string quartet, the St. Lawrence, just lost to cancer its first violinist and co-founder, the prodigiously gifted Geoff Nuttall. Others, like the Juilliard and Takács, have changed personnel so frequently as to alter their particular sound. And, yes, plenty more continue to plug away, but when was the last time any made headlines?

The 20th century was the string quartet’s great golden age. During the two previous centuries, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorák had written some of their best music for it. Then Bartók and Schoenberg enriched the options in entirely new ways. None of that would matter if there hadn’t been ensembles to breathe vibrant life into those scores, but there were. And in abundance.

Many—the Bush, Pro Arte, Budapest, Amadeus and Guarneri among them—have passed into legend. And as legions of recordings attest, there were others whose excellence rivaled theirs, even if their fame didn’t. But that was then. In the 21st century? Not so much. This quartet is the exception.

So what accounts for their anomalous success? Great technique, naturally. Longevity, too—the quartet’s configuration has been unchanged since 2008, when a Norwegian cellist, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, joined the Danish-born Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Øland (violins) and Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola) to form the current roster. Even more important is the group’s ability to unify in a way that doesn’t stifle individual character. It’s often said of string quartets that listening to one at its best is like eavesdropping on four intelligent people engaged in a scintillating conversation. And that’s been true every time I’ve heard this ensemble perform over the past five or so years.

Their special qualities surface forcefully in both live performance and on their excellent, smartly programmed recordings—all since 2016 on the prestigious ECM label. But what emerges only in person is something hard to convey in print: their utterly unpretentious bearing, or, more precisely, their ineffable ability to make chamber music—traditionally, classical music’s stuffiest genre—seem totally involving and even fun. They achieve this in several ways, though principally by preceding most of the music with informed yet self-deprecating remarks. This is especially helpful for their “concept” programs, namely the Prism and Doppelgänger series—another of their appealing innovations. Then there’s the music itself.

The group makes no apologies—nor should it—for performing landmarks of the string-quartet repertory, like Beethoven’s Op. 131. But the players not infrequently fill out programs with their own arrangements of folk tunes from their native Scandinavia, as well as, more recently, from the British Isles. A mix of laments, ballads and high-stepping drinking songs, the often-anonymous tunes leaven the high-mindedness of other works on the program without diminishing the integrity of either.

On a fairly typical program I heard in August in Boulder, Colo., Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810), a chamber-music pinnacle, was preceded by Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor and a clutch of folk material. Perhaps the “more accessible” first half somehow prepared the audience for the demands of the second. Or maybe it was the robust tone and unflagging concentration of these hardworking musicians. Whatever the reason, the effect was mesmerizing—just as another crowd had been similarly transfixed the night before in Vail, when a new piece by Ms. Wennäkoski was juxtaposed with the Schubert on a Doppelgänger program.

Some will insist that chamber music isn’t facing quite the reckoning I’ve suggested. But even if that is true, the manner in which string quartets and similar forms are presented to the public requires significant refreshment. Yet appeals to wider audiences mustn’t alienate those already partial to chamber music. The Danish String Quartet appears to have hit on the perfect formula for satisfying both camps. Whether it can be more broadly applied is unclear. But the quartet’s success thus far is cause for optimism and, we hope, another 20 years of rigorous, vigorous music making.

—Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on classical music and film.