Four years ago, when The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the full cycle of Beethoven's string quartets, multiple ensembles, spanning several generations, were invited to perform. In this Beethoven anniversary year, the honor has been bestowed on just one: the Danish String Quartet, unanimously considered among the most distinguished young group of string players active today. Performing together as a quartet since 2008, these instrumentalists, all of them still in their 30s, have today both the necessary experience and the enthusiasm to tackle such a nonpareil task.

Danish String Quartet © Tristan Cook
Danish String Quartet
© Tristan Cook

The third performance of the series was devoted to the Op.59 quartets, the so-called “Razumovsky”, after the Russian ambassador to Vienna who commissioned the works. Beethoven includes Russian sounding themes in the first quartet’s finale and in the second one’s Trio – played here with evident gusto by an ensemble that many a times dots its programs with adapted folk tunes.

Overall, the Scandinavians’ performance kept a wonderful equilibrium between color and structure, humor and tragic sentiment, self-confidence and doubt. The interpreters underlined the music’s symphonic character while letting their individual voices shine. They didn’t overemphasize, at any point, the scores’ Romanticism (as they could have, for example, in the F major’s Adagio molto e mesto with its full of anguish aria). On the contrary, they brought to the front of their interpretation references to Haydn and Mozart’s Classicism, even if Beethoven’s 1806 music is much more in its own realm than the previous quartets, the Op.18, were. As much as the Op. 59 quartets are viewed by some as a single statement in twelve parts, the evening’s performers made sure to bring forward each work’s individuality: the song invoking melodies of the first, the enigmatic character of the second, the youthful exuberance imbuing many of the musical phrases of the C major.

The quartet appeared to act so much as a single organism – in terms of the overall sound and in “passing the baton” from one instrumentalist to the next – that it really didn’t matter that the two violinists alternatively took the first chair, a practise the members of the Danish String Quartet probably adopted from one of their mentors, the Emersons. (For the record, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was the first violinist in the F major and the C major quartets while Frederik Øland played the role in the E minor).

In a performance with just a few minuses – occasionally, the tuning was uncertain – there were many treasurable moments, from the first bars of the Op.59 no.1, with cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin enouncing the dolce first theme, to the ebullient Finale of Op.59 no.3 (repeated as an encore). The contrast between the backwards-looking Menuetto and the experimental Andante con motto that precedes it in Op.59 no.3, the tension associated with the brief moments of silence and the wondrous tonality shifts, the unbridled energy in the F major’s Allegretto were truly remarkable.

In their latest multi-album recording project named “Prism”, the Danish String Quartet juxtaposes Bach fugues, late Beethoven quartets and more recent compositions, wishing to underline how Beethoven’s quartets play a prismatic role – diffracting a beam of light coming from Bach into multiple, more modern styles. On Tuesday night they convincingly demonstrated how much the Razumovsky Quartets are themselves a “prism”, a focal node within the Beethovenian canon.

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