Whether they beat softly in a casual gathering of amateur musicians or roar at full throttle in the string section of a mighty orchestra, the skills acquired through playing the quartet repertoire are at the heart of any string program. Whenever four musicians give voice to one of the Beethoven string quartets, to take just the most obvious example, they connect the deep resources of the musical past with the far reaches of its future development. For the Danish String Quartet, a youthful plunge into this deep pool of musical knowledge has turned into an impressively rapid rise to the top of the contemporary music scene. In a rare gesture reflecting the urgency of their impact and the warmth of the reception they received after playing at the Music Academy’s Hahn Hall last season, UCSB Arts & Lectures has brought this group back right away, and to the much larger Campbell Hall, for a program that includes three of the greatest works ever written for string quartet — the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6 of Ludwig van Beethoven, the String Quartet No. 1 (“The Kreutzer Sonata”) by Leoš Janáček, and the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13 of Felix Mendelssohn.
Such challenging fare has become standard for Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello, and Frederik Øland, violin. Encouraged by a sympathetic music teacher in Copenhagen to pursue music as a group beginning when the men were all still in their teens, the Danish String Quartet enjoys extraordinary in-demand status among the world’s most elite musical organizations. When I spoke with Sørensen by phone last week from the group’s hotel in New York City, they were just days away from performing the finale of a series showcasing the complete Beethoven string quartets organized by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Observing that “the last ones fit us well,” Sørensen acknowledged that it was an honor to be chosen for this ultra high-profile assignment. He described the upcoming program in Santa Barbara by saying that “the thought behind this one is the Darkness,” going on to explain that Beethoven’s early quartet Op. 18, No. 6 ends with a slow chromatic movement known as “La Malinconia,” or “Melancholy.” The Janáček and the Mendelssohn compositions both make direct reference to specific works by Beethoven that inspired them, and this approach, in which the group performs clusters of material coordinated around a seminal figure, is what’s driving their next recording project, a series that pairs the late Beethoven quartets with music that either influenced them or that came out of the tradition they elaborated. “We put these things together in a curated way,” Sørensen said, “and Beethoven serves as a kind of prism to discover the various colors found in other composers’ music.”
While live performance has earned the quartet its strongest praise thus far, no account of the group’s rise to prominence would be complete without mentioning the unanticipated success of their top-selling recording. In 2014, the Danish String Quartet released a CD titled Wood Works containing 13 Nordic folk tunes arranged by the group and played in a style that converges with their approach to classical compositions. Thanks in part to a YouTube video of a performance that went viral, the album became one of the year’s best-selling classical recordings. Suddenly, listeners all over the world were chilling to the relaxing sounds of “Five Sheep, Four Goats” and “Jasspodspolska,” to choose but two of the fascinating subtitles in the Sonderho Bridal Trilogy.
The Danish String Quartet will be at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, March 1, at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.