The Danish String Quartet is now a dozen years old, and though its members are still boyish and gangly, the group is in full artistic flower. After its performance last year at the Library of Congress, I wrote: “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 very fine instrumentalists, and in matters of blend, intonation and technical dispatch, the group is certainly world-class.” On Wednesday at the Terrace Theater, it was, if anything, better; this is one of the best quartets before the public today.
The program, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was a bit conservative — Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich (No. 9) — but with playing on this level, it didn’t matter. While the Danish does not wring the last ounce of gutsiness out of the music and can sound a little sleepy at slow tempos, the clarity and musical detail of its performances are rare indeed. Also, the group would sound still richer if its violist had a larger instrument; the silvery timbre blends nicely with the violins, but the lower end of the quartet could use more heft.
Mendelssohn’s “Capriccio” encapsulated the group’s profile; in the introduction, the artists were a little too willing, perhaps, to make musical points by slowing down, but in the fiery fugue, the virtuosity of passagework and balancing of voices were simply stunning. If achieved at the expense of a true fortissimo, it was still a good trade.
The Shostakovich quartets require, first and foremost, perfect intonation. The composer’s long, droning passages can set the teeth on edge if anything is out of place, and here the Danish was particularly fine, everything lining up. Bow strokes were matched to the centimeter, and the entire thing was a tour de force of quartet discipline. The Danish Quartet did not bring the savagery that some Russian groups do to this music, but it was artistically valid.
Beethoven’s Op. 131 is the Everest of the literature, and no performance can capture everything. But here again, the scrupulous detail (one of the few renditions I’ve heard that made a real effort to execute Beethoven’s seemingly crazy dynamics), the unanimity of interpretation and the cleanliness of the ensemble were outstanding. While the opening fugue and the penultimate movement could have been a little less dirgelike, the imagination and impish interplay in the scherzo were delightful. It was a memorable performance, and while the season is young, this concert is likely to be one of its true highlights.
Battey is a freelance writer.