Great Beethoven and More: Music through a Danish Prism

Since 2018, when the Danish String Quartet released their first Prism CD, I have been eagerly awaiting the fifth and final album in the series, and at last it is here. The Quartet’s idea for the string of releases was simple, as announced on the back cover of each of the CDs: ‘Lines of connection are drawn… from a Bach fugue through one of the late Beethoven quartets to the music of a subsequent composer’. In other words, one’s understanding and appreciation of the five late Beethoven string quartets could be enhanced by contextualising it through the addition of a fugue by Bach (the last disc includes two) and a quartet by a more recent composer which alludes to or somehow echoes music by Bach and/or Beethoven. So on Prism I, Beethoven’s 12th quartet is joined by Shostakovich’s 15th; on Prism II, Beethoven’s 13th by Schnittke’s 3rd; on Prism III, the 14th by Bartók’s 1st; on Prism IV, the 15th by Felix Mendelssohn’s 2nd; and on the recently released Prism V, the 16th by Webern’s quartet from 1905. (This last instalment begins with Bach’s chorale prelude Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, and ends with his unfinished Contrapunctus XIV from The Art of Fugue.)

There are, of course, many other wonderful recordings of Beethoven’s late quartets – they are, after all, widely regarded as towering pinnacles in the landscape of western music –  but the insights afforded by the Prism groupings, always intriguing and illuminating, are undoubtedly a bonus. The Schnittke, for example, repeatedly refers to the Grosse Fuge theme that ends Beethoven’s 12th quartet; the Mendelssohn, written shortly after Beethoven’s death, clearly displays not only his influence but also, in his use of counterpoint, that of Bach. In Shostakovich, the legacy of Beethoven and, especially, Bach is never far way; and even in the Bartók and Webern pieces (the latter being an early piece, longer and considerably more tonal than his later work), correspondences and connections may be discerned. (Paul Griffiths’ somewhat ‘poetic’ booklet notes for the series deal with specific links in far more detail than I could ever offer.)

The juxtapositions on each album, then, are highly rewarding. Equally important is the fact that the programming allow for the discovery of quartets less well-known than the Beethoven pieces; to me, for instance, the Schnittke and Webern compositions were completely new, and I’m very glad to have made their acquaintance. Rest assured, all the pieces that accompany the Bach and Beethoven are well worth listening to repeatedly in their own right.

And then, of course, there are the performances. The Danish String Quartet are perhaps best known to some for their exemplary recordings of Nordic folk tunes on the albums Wood Works (Dacapo) and Last Leaf (ECM), but their standing in ‘classical’ music is likewise illustrious. Though still fairly young, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Øland (violins), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola) and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (cello) have been playing together a long time – the three Danes met as children at summer camp, while the Norwegian cellist joined the quartet in 2008 – and it shows in the precision and empathy of their interactions. Their playing is wonderfully transparent and nuanced throughout (well served, of course, by the clarity and resonance of ECM’s production), ranging from pure power to exquisite delicacy, strident dissonance to elegant lyricism as the music requires; it is refined, intelligent, balanced, unflashy, meticulous – but never remotely dry. There is beauty in abundance. In short, this is marvellous music marvellously performed.

A review of Prism V in the New York Times claimed, ‘these releases must qualify as some of the most essential listening of the past decade.’ I am tempted to agree. 

The Danish String Quartet’s five Prism albums were released by ECM. You can listen to samples from each release on the ECM website. The photo of the Quartet was taken by the author after its performance at Wigmore Hall in May 2022.

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