Danish String Quartet

Moving on Music invite the Scandinavian foursome to Belfast and Armagh

The Danish String Quartet may well be the most lavishly bearded in quartet history. They look like a particularly ascetic bunch of philosophy students.

Strong emotions lurk beneath the surface, however – as the intensely concentrated account of Beethoven's Op. 95 quartet concludes the first half of their concert at the Marketplace Theatre, Armagh makes plainly evident.

The 'Serioso', as Op. 95 is termed, is a tough, terse masterpiece, gruffly unwilling to repeat itself, or make life easy for the lazy listener. The Danish players catch this restless compulsion for forward momentum potently, while studiously avoiding the recklessness less technically adept quartets often resort to.

And what technique these four young players have at the end of their fingers – the puckish charm of the Trio in Mendelssohn's 'A minor Quartet', which comes after the interval, and the shuddering tremolandi passages of the finale, are dispatched with superlative unanimity of purpose.

It's certainly unlikely that Pomeroy-born composer Ryan Molloy will ever hear his new piece 'Gealach Críoch Lochlann' played better. Written to a Moving on Music commission, this short, seven-minute work takes a slow air akin to those in Irish traditional music as its point of departure.

Deconstructing it, and adding elements of microtonality, Molloy refracts the tune through an unfamiliar prism, creating a soundscape which at one and the same time seems partly familiar, yet strangely new in its precise configurations.

Even by the high standards of the international quartet circuit, the Danish players have an uncommonly sophisticated range of dynamics at their disposal, and use it to sift and settle the swirling strands of material in the central section of Molloy's piece into a structure of vivid clarity.

The same highly developed ability to layer textures informs the Danish's reading of Haydn's 'F minor Quartet (Op. 20, No. 5)', in a lunchtime recital at The MAC in Belfast, the day after the Armagh concert. The finale is particularly effective, its fugal argument developed for the most part in a muted sotto voce, with playing of wonderful precision and concentration.

For the main item on The MAC programme, the group turn to their compatriot Carl Nielsen, whose quartets the DSQ have recorded in two widely acclaimed CD issues. Their experience in Nielsen is evidenced in the surging Allegro con brio opening of the 'Third Quartet', where the players relish the teeming flood of contending ideas and motifs that drive the music forward.

The huge, long-range climaxes of the Andante sostenuto are built with consummate assurance, Nielsen's sumptuously interwoven textures achieving an almost orchestral sonority. The folksy dance rhythms of both the third movement and finale are jauntily inflected, with a magnificently exciting dash to the finishing tape at the quartet's exuberant conclusion.

For all the dynamism of the Danish String Quartet's playing – their account of Mendelssohn's 'Capriccio', for example, fizzes with irrepressible vitality – there's a poise and intelligence to their performances bespeaking an already advanced level of artistic maturity, and a deep commitment to the music they are playing.

This includes contemporary music, for in addition to the Molloy premiere the DSQ include the 'Ten Preludes' by Hans Abrahamsen, another Danish composer, in their Armagh concert. Each piece is finely chiselled, the string chorale over a single pulsing bass note in 'No. 5', and the startlingly fast reactions of the players as spiccato figurations are swapped at high velocity in 'No. 7', imprinting particularly in the memory.

Taken together, these two concerts are a major highlight of an impressive year for chamber music making in Northern Ireland. January brings the return of New York's outstanding JACK Quartet, for two Moving on Music concerts at The MAC, the second featuring Georg Friedrich Haas's 'Third String Quartet', a work performed in total darkness. Both concerts are simply unmissable.