The program on paper may have looked like a jumble of conventional works, one member of the Danish String Quartet pointed out, speaking from the stage of Jordan Hall at Friday evening’s Celebrity Series recital. But, he added, the selected works by Haydn, Shostakovich, and Britten were in fact united by the element of musical surprise.
In another ensemble’s hands, the statement might have added up to a well-intended but ultimately meaningless cliche — doesn’t all good music surprise on some level? — but this was not another ensemble. The Danish String Quartet, a youthful foursome with a casually fearless air, has earned its renown by matching a kind of preternatural ensemble precision with a sense of spontaneity and — yes — surprise.
And sure enough, the quartet’s playing embodied the evening’s stated theme from the outset. This was some of the most technically adroit and at the same time cracklingly vital quartet playing I’ve heard in a very long time.
The evening’s first work, Haydn’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, no. 3, has plenty of the unexpected baked into the score itself, with unpredictable phrase lengths, dynamic shifts, and moments of rhetorical high drama. The Danish Quartet played up these moments to the max without ever tipping into caricature. Actual laughs could be heard in the audience as listeners responded to Haydn’s humor.
Rather strikingly, in the Trio section of Haydn’s Minuet movement, violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen gave a preview of the folk-style fiddling that the group would showcase in the program’s second half, taking on Haydn’s solo line with a rustic manner that made it sound like a ditty overheard in a country tavern. Even with these liberties taken, however, the performance as a whole somehow came across not as artificially mannered Haydn, but rather straight-up Haydn simply played with much more character and imagination than one typically hears.
The same could be said for the Danish’s account of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7, its slow movement showcasing the group’s vast palette of tone color and its closing finale ripped through with hair-raising intensity. Britten’s Three Divertimenti were likewise boldly characterized, with the quartet delivering the full theatricality, wit, and playfully modernistic rhetoric of these youthful essays.
After intermission, the group offered a set of traditional Nordic folk music in its own arrangements, with each selection introduced from the stage and the set as a whole capped, rather improbably, with an encore of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Their joyfully freewheeling renditions of tunes such as “Kisti du Com” from Sweden, “Marie Louise” from Denmark, and “Regin Smidue” from the Faroe Islands, delighted the hall. Nor was there any of the attendant awkwardness, that sense of genre tourism, that can sometimes hang over those occasions when conservatory-trained musicians “let down their hair” in so-called crossover repertoire. In fact the beauty of the evening as a whole — and its ultimate surprise — came in how the classical works were played with the vitality of folk music, and the folk music was offered with the care and virtuosity of classical repertoire.
Let’s hope the quartet as a whole returns next season. Meanwhile, Sorensen, the violinist, will be back in town next month — as one-third of the Nordic folk trio Dreamers’ Circus, coming to the Celebrity Series on Feb. 24.
DANISH STRING QUARTET
At Jordan Hall, Jan. 27
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.