String quartet playing requires a unique level of compatibility and mutual dedication. The rehearsal time and note-by-note scrutiny required from all members exceed that of any other ensemble, and in this high-intensity environment it helps a lot when the members have a common background. Which is probably why so many of the most celebrated quartets (Borodin, Tokyo, Berg, Smetana, Italiano) have been those where everyone came from the same place. And the Danish String Quartet — three Danes and a Norwegian — that performed on Saturday afternoon at the Library of Congress does play with uncommon unanimity. Formed in 2002, the group has won many competitions, has a number of recordings out and begins a Lincoln Center residency this season.
The reasons are evident: It is a true four-way collaboration. The violinists trade off the first chair, and no personality dominates (at least in performance). The young artists are all fine instrumentalists, and in matters of blend, intonation and technical dispatch, the group is certainly world-class. Homogeneity can be a shortcoming, however, if it extends to blandness, and in the two classical works Saturday, there was a want of fire and character.
The first words one sees when beginning Haydn’s Op. 76, No. 4 Quartet (the “Sunrise”) are “Allegro con spirito.” That description was nowhere to be found in this performance, well groomed as it was. The other movements were impressive in execution, but with conservative tempos and a relatively narrow dynamic range. The same could be said of the group’s performance of Beethoven’s Op. 95 Quartet: impeccably beautiful playing with the surprises and violent dynamics smoothed out.
This was not the case with the Ligeti Quartet No. 1, a fine and underrated work. Here, the performers tore into the dense music with a passion that would have been much appreciated in the classical works. A fourth work, by a contemporary Dane, Hans Abrahamsen, left little impression as far as musical substance.
Battey is a freelance writer.