Even among the large crop of superb youngish string quartets — those with between five and 15 years under their belts — the Danish String Quartet stands out. The foursome — violinists Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, violist Asbjorn Norgaard, cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjölin — boasts a confidence and command beyond the 15 years it’s been together. Having made its Boston debut in 2013 in the Celebrity Series of Boston Debut Series, it chose a riskier and more ambitious program for its visit to the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival on Monday, a concert that was as comprehensively rewarding as any chamber-music performance in recent memory.
The quartet’s dark, velvety sound was apparent in two of Mendelssohn’s Four Pieces for String Quartet (Op. 81), making them sound unusually tender. It also made the gentle opening of Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet into a comfortingly nostalgic dream. But when the music turned bitter and impassioned, the quartet’s sound quickly became more acerbic thanks to Oland’s slashing interjections from the second chair, a perfect foil to Sorensen’s mellower tone. (The two switch off in first chair.) The finale, a juggernaut that reaches hard-won victory only after ardent struggle, was electric.
Alfred Schnittke’s Third Quartet was the evening’s most impressive achievement, if only because of the music’s sheer strangeness. The piece is openly haunted by the past, as quotations from Lassus’s “Stabat Mater” and Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” collide with an unsettlingly dissonant vocabulary. The music seems too sinister for pastiche, challenging your conception of what the composer’s “real” style actually is.
The DSQ’s performance was impassioned, precise, and brilliant in ways both technical and conceptual. The “Grosse Fuge” itself followed, sounding even more avant-garde than it usually does with the memory of what Schnittke had made of it still fresh in the ears. The performance was notable not only for its exhilaration but also for the careful pacing and planning that went into it. Each segment of this highly sectionalized work seemed to bring something new and unexpected.
The demanding program was given a rapturous reception at Dennis Union Church, so the Quartet played a brief encore from its homeland: a Christmas-themed chorale by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It offered what nothing else on the program did: serene, untroubled beauty.
Do not lose track of this group: Even by today’s high standards, it offers something very special.