Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera
"The American Slave Coast" at Symphony Space

Danish String Quartet at Zankel Hall

Danish String Quartet-003As I learned when I was in Copenhagen last year, the Danes are really good at music. Count among them the Danish String Quartet, three of whom - violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard - met at summer music camp 20 years ago, when they were barely teenagers. (Norwegian cellist Fredrerik Schøyen Sjölin joined the quartet in 2008.) Their reputation has grown feverishly over the past few seasons, thanks in part to their participation in festivals and residencies like Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society Two.

They also have a certain hipster appeal, with their scruffy beards and modish-yet-refined attire. In Copenhagen, one of their concert series has its own line of craft beer; last month, they hosted their 10th annual DSQ Festival, a four-day cross-disciplinary event that brings together artists the've met during their travels. In an interview with the Times last week, they displayed a refreshing lack of pretension or pandering.

"When I enjoy musicians playing concerts,” Mr. Nørgaard 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.”

The DSQ brought their act to Carnegie's Zankel Hall last night, where a capacity crowd turned out for an ultra-serious program of late works by Shostakovich and Schubert. Heavy fare for a quartet whose members are all in their early 30's, but then again, these guys also started out by playing the late Beethoven quartets, before anyone told them how tricky they were. (They still have trouble with Mozart, apparently.)

Danish String Quartet-002Shostakovich's 15th and final string quartet was written in 1974, a year before his death. It is dark and strange, with a minimalist texture that sounded like something Morton Feldman might have written in one of his more anxious moments. Soon, it was clear that the DSQ's reputation doesn't just rely upon their looks or charm: they dug into the music with fierce intensity and seamless integrity. Good thing, because there's nowhere to hide in this relentlessly bleak quartet: one false move, and you're exposed.

After intermission, they were joined by Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen for Schubert's String Quintet, one of the last pieces Schubert finished before dying at the age of 31. For someone that ridiculously young, this hour-long work is music of incredible depth and yearning, vacillating between deep despair and manic, almost desperate joy. As I sat there listening to the DSQ's incisive, pitch-perfect rendering, I was transported back to my first visit to Vienna 13 years ago, where I listened to my recording of the quintet endlessly on my CD walkman (yes, that was a thing) while walking around the city. Eventually, I ended up in the apartment where Schubert finished the quintet and eventually died. I'll never forget the devastation I felt listening to the slow, sad Adagio while standing over the cot where Schubert - who was younger than I was at the time - breathed his last. 

My only beef with the program was the lack of any Danish music, which the DSQ resolved during the encore with an arrangement of Nielsen's "Underlige aftenlufte" ("Strange evening wind"): a sweet, simple lullaby to send us out into the crisp fall evening.