It’s not common for a young quartet to feel more at home in the rarefied world of late Beethoven than in the earthier realm of the composer’s early works. But for the four young men of the Danish String Quartet, who could pass for hipster purveyors of bean-to-bar chocolate from Brooklyn, artistic high-mindedness comes most naturally.
At its concert at UDC on Thursday night, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts, the quartet exhibited an unmistakable urbanity, with its refined sound, clear voicing and interpretive restraint. But the sly humor of Beethoven’s early Quartet in G, Op. 18, No. 2, proved an incongruous fit. The crisp performance had undeniable virtues, but it all felt overly studied and buttoned up, with the quartet not fully embracing the subversive spirit of Beethoven’s playfulness.
The quartet’s natural gravitas sounded more idiomatic in the profundities of Beethoven’s late Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130. The high point came in the Cavatina, with the quartet achieving a plaintive and intensely concentrated lyricism. The seven-bar passage at the movement’s core marked “beklemmt” (oppressed, anxious, suffocated), played in a paper-thin whisper by violinist Frederik Oland, was a cry of quiet desperation.
The quartet elected for the challenge of Beethoven’s original ending to the Op. 130, the monumental “Grosse Fuge.” It was a scrupulous and intelligently shaped reading, with an especially impressive command of the rhythmic complexities and fierce drive of the first fugue. The quartet drew marked contrasts between the fiery and lyrical sections, but it missed something of the longer-range drama, with the ending feeling underpowered and not quite the culmination of all that came before.
The night’s most convincing performance was a searing reading of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s Third Quartet from 1983. The work takes as its starting point three fragments from older music – Orlando di Lassus’s “Stabat Mater,” the “Grosse Fuge” and Shostakovich — before subjecting them to all manner of turbulent transformation. Violist Asbjorn Norgaard described the piece as the composer’s anguished and unsuccessful quest for answers from the past, and the quartet brought to life Schnittke’s tortured emotional world, with its ferocious outbursts, violent pizzicati and menacing trills. We felt his pain.