LENOX — Wednesday evening, the crowd that gathered at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall for the Danish String Quartet’s performance could be divided into two camps: those who had at least some idea of what they might be in for, and those who had none. My concert buddy, an arts-marketing professional and lifelong cellist, was in the latter camp, and by intermission his eyes were alight. “I could listen to them play anything,” he said several times. Likewise, the woman behind me on my way out: “So how was that?” I heard her friend ask, and I turned around to see her struggle to find words through a wide smile.
Going into this performance, I was solidly in the first group. I’d seen several videos of the quartet online, as well as a virtual concert by Dreamer’s Circus, violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen’s Nordic folk band. But nothing could have truly prepared me for the tornado of energy that the quartet unleashed with its performance of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden.” Cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin dropped a subtle hint of what was to come when he led the quartet onto the stage, not so much walking through the stage door as leaping.
But there wasn’t much time to process that before the foursome attacked the first descending scales, letting the stark sound echo and dwindle in Ozawa’s rafters. The eminently hummable foundational melody of the second movement (borrowed from the composer’s own song “Death and the Maiden”) was rendered in a misty, translucent texture that lent a ghostly, foreboding quality to both it and the many variations that followed, individually distinct though they were. The players seemed to dance in their seats: In certain moments, it would have felt like no surprise if they got up and whirled around the stage.
With that, the galloping theme of the final movement — played with surprising sweetness in its first few incidences — turned into a seductive danse macabre, bridging twitchy interludes where the violins seemed to scream in terror. Everything around was improbably in tune with the music, from a stray alarm bell to a crow cawing outside: When Sørensen, playing first violin, smacked a stray piece of score with his bow to keep it from falling, it sounded uncannily like a whip crack, and on beat at that — perhaps the maiden fleeing Death on horseback? The standing ovation was nearly instantaneous.
So what is it about them that prompts such acclaim? It’s not their technique — slobs they are not, but there are ensembles with more polish. Neither is it a commitment to any particular style of music, or style of playing. For my part, I’ve got to give it to two things: their commitment to connecting and contextualizing music from all areas of the concert music tradition and beyond, and the unbridled joy they take in playing with one another. Whether playing the well-traveled quartet, or Lotta Wennäkoski’s thorny “Pige” (the main event of the second half) or the Danish folk tune “Five Sheep, Four Goats” that they offered as an encore, there was every indication that they were having the time of their lives.
“Pige,” Danish for “girl,” which was commissioned by the group as a companion piece to the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, offered an intentionally striking contrast to the melody-driven first half. Writing about the piece, the composer expressed her wish to convey the perspective of the “maiden,” and the first movement seemed to translate the rhythms and cadences of a young woman’s speech onto the stringed instruments. The second movement indulged in extended techniques and insect-like sounds, perhaps a little overly so: The music gelled more in the finale, a “scrapbook” of jumbled samples from various sources, including Schubert’s songs and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which ended with the cellist gleefully ripping a sheet of paper. The program ended as it began, with Schubert: the quartet’s arrangement of the “Death and the Maiden” song.
Conventional wisdom would have dictated that the order of the program be reversed, with the source material first, then the contemporary piece as a prelude to the main event. (The first movement of “Pige” can be performed as a prologue to the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, according to the program notes.) But turning conventional wisdom (metaphorically) on its head seems to work for these four: So it was literally as well.
DANISH STRING QUARTET
At Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Aug. 3.