Ensemble of the Year:
Danish String Quartet

By Clive Paget

They bonded around a football stuck in a tree. “It was our first challenge as a string quartet,” quips DSQ violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. Several years and first prizes later, the foursome faces a different challenge: a complete Beethoven cycle and recordings of the late quartets for ECM.

2020 Muscial America Ensemble of the Year:<br>Danish String Quartet
@Caroline Bittencourt.

(Pictured, left to right) Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (violin); Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (cello); Frederik Øland (violin); Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola).

These days there is no shortage of bright, shiny young string quartets nipping at the heels of the masters, but there’s plenty about the three Danes and one Norwegian who make up the Danish String Quartet to make them stand out from the pack.

Beards and beer
Critical plaudits tend to focus on the sheer excitement of a DSQ performance with “thrilling,” “exhilarating,” and “rockstar vibe” listed alongside references to pinpoint intonation and immaculate blend. Of course, it helps that despite being only in their mid-30s, three of them—violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard (Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin came onboard in 2008)—have been making music together for over 20 years (go on, do the math). There’s also something about their programming that brilliantly manages to combine the old with the new; the conventional with the unconventional. And then there’s the folk music. But despite the hipster beards and the beer—both of which inevitably get a mention in any profile of the group—the DSQ vibe is best summed up by the phrase “expect the unexpected.”

The three Danes first met at a summer camp for amateur musicians. Among the youngest in a mix of adults and children, they clicked at once. “We thought we sounded pretty good,” admits Sørenson, describing how they would devour piles of sheet music culled from the camp library. “We were very confidant at that time,” he adds with a laugh. 

“Actually, we initially bonded more around a football,” counters Nørgaard. “That year, Frederik brought a new, shiny football and it immediately got stuck in a tree. Being a better violinist than a footballer, it became a big project to get it down. It was our first challenge as a string quartet.” Their teenage talents were nurtured back in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Academy of Music’s Tim Frederiksen who, according to Sørenson, invested “tons of hours and days and weeks” in coaching them. At the Academy, they found themselves concertizing as a quartet from the start, quickly winning the admiration of their peers.

The first pieces they studied were Haydn’s “Emperor” and Shostakovich’s Eighth. “Just play Haydn, that’s the best practice you can do,” Frederiksen told them, recommending Shostakovich as a counterweight to stimulate other parts of the brain.

A break came early—first prize in the 2004 Danish Radio Chamber Music Competition. Soon after, they triumphed at the 2009 London International String Quartet Competition, and in 2011 they were awarded the Carl Nielsen Prize, Denmark’s most prestigious cultural honor. The following year they auditioned successfully for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Butterfly effects and success
“These established us nationally and internationally,” says Nørgaard, “but the truth of the matter is that there is a huge iceberg below the surface. Tiny movements, decisions, ‘wins,’ helping hands, and lucky moments. Lots of butterfly effects that brought us to where we are today.”

“We were very young and quite naïve, and at times that was actually a good thing for us,” explains Øland. “We were always the underdogs in competitions and that suited us very well. But we have families now, so we have less time and we have to know our stuff before we get together. I guess it went from something that was very, very free spirited to something more professional.”

To return to the group’s certain something, their recorded catalogue is as good a place as any to discover their special qualities. Take their 2007 traversal of the six Nielsen string quartets—the first time I heard them—on the Danish Da Capo label. There’s the commitment to Scandinavian repertoire, but also a freshness to the playing. You sense almost a determination not to bend under the weight of tradition. That originality led ECM to their door in 2017. Their debut—a coruscating mix of early works by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgard, and Hans Abrahamsen—is not exactly the standard fare with which a label launches a new act.

“We are obsessed with programming,” says Nørgaard. “We believe a great program is carefully curated, just like in an art museum. No one would accept an exhibition at MoMA if the curator just threw up random paintings.”

And then there’s the folk music, a habit picked up as early as 2004 when they played a tiny Swedish folk chorale in a competition. “We started doing arrangements ourselves and incorporating them into concerts as encores,” explains Sørenson. “It seemed these were the pieces people recalled—I mean, you pour out your heart in a Beethoven quartet and then you play one little folk tune and that’s what people remember!”

Labels embraced the idea with Wood Works (Da Capo, 2014) and Last Leaf (ECM, 2017), both winning acclaim. 

A complete Beethoven cycle will be a special focus for 2020, the composer’s 250th year, one that will see them crisscross the U.S. as part of three different tours. He is also the focus of their five-disc “Prism Project” for ECM, the first fruits of which garnered them a 2018 Grammy nomination. Each disc mixes a Beethoven late quartet with a 20th-century work and an arrangement of a Bach fugue. And if you assume that four Scandinavian lads will deliver testosterone-fueled Beethoven, think again—their interpretations are among the most lyrical I know. 

“Prism is not just pieces on a CD. The works are related to each other,” explains Øland. “It makes the music very human. It’s not just masterpieces that have fallen down from the sky, it’s people who have inspired each other—even stolen from each other—and made them their own.” 

Patient families and long relationships
These days, with two of the quartet members now married and three with children, touring requires more careful planning. “We have very patient wives and girlfriends,” laughs Sørenson. But the ties that bind are manifold: “The friendship remains the same,” says Øland. “It’s been a long relationship—I mean, it’s longer than any of us have been in any personal relationships. We know each other so well that we react without even looking at each other.”

As for the beer: “It’s magical after a concert,” Sjölin declares with relish. And the beards? “I guess it started with just not shaving,” he jokes. “I think we would look pretty much the same no matter what business we were in, but we do appreciate a good, full-grown Canadian scarf!”

Asked to define their own strengths, they cite humor and normality. “We have always laughed a lot and never taken anything particularly seriously,” explains Nørgaard. “This can be helpful in a classical-music world that is sometimes too serious for its own good. We have always been ‘normal’ Danish boys with the quartet somewhere in the background. It had to fit into our lives and minds; we didn’t try to squeeze ourselves into a conception of what a string quartet is and should be.”

As recipes for success go, that one sounds simultaneously simple and deep. Just like the DSQ. •

Clive Paget is a New York-based freelance arts writer and critic, and editor-at-large for Australia’s Limelight Magazine. He writes for Musicalamerica.com and Opera News, and was music theatre consultant at London’s National Theatre from 2002 to 2007.