How Does the Danish String Quartet’s New Album Compare with Their Transcendent Beethoven Cycle?

by delarue

The Danish String Quartet‘s marathon performance of the Beethoven cycle at Lincoln Center over the course of barely two weeks last year was arguably one of the most breathtaking and rewardingly ambitious feats any ensemble has ever tackled, let alone pulled off in this city. They may be known for their dazzling technique, but it was their dynamic range, and attention to the most minute details, and ultimately their passion for the music that made that series of concerts so unforgettable. How does their new album Prism III – Beethoven, Bartók, Bach, streaming at Spotify, match up against that wild artistry and erudition?

The point of their ongoing Prism series is to trace the influence of Bach on an ensemble style which didn’t even formally exist in his lifetime. The group put their somber, lusciously cantabile performance of Emanuel Aloys Forster’s arrangement of the Bach Fugue in C-sharp minor, from book one of the Well-Tempered Clavier, at the end of the album. In their hands, it’s practically a chorale. Presumably, by this point you haven’t cheated and are looking for foreshadowing of what’s already appeared in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 and Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1.

And there’s plenty of that. The Bach influence in the late Beethoven quartets is vast, as is the late Beethoven influence on Bartok, so it’s not hard to watch the bouncing ball here. What makes this album stand out is the players’ intuitive sense of the works’ emotional architecture, even more than their grasp of their technical challenges.

They open with Beethoven. The sense of foreboding in the first movement is visceral, which may explain why it seems rather muted in the beginning and the end, and on the slow, stately side. Violinists Frederik Øklund and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin give the second movement a playful swing, even in the midst of so many flickeringly ominous portents.

The fleeting ghosts of the third “movement” give way to a guarded lustre fueled by Sjölin’s incisive bassline. Hushed echoes get switched out for sotto-voce humor, tentative jauntiness and a remarkable expanse of dynamics, more so than most quartets give this. Call it a cliche that a tortured artist watches a turbulent life flash back through a wine haze, but that’s a lot of this picture. The presto movement is aptly bittersweet and hallucinogenic, right down to different dynamic levels from individual voices; the stoic calm and delicate vibrato of the adagio leave a mighty impact. As does the coda, the group leaving a chill as they leap and reap everything left in their path.

After that, where can you go? They play the first Bartok with similar insight; you might want to make your own playlist and hear this album in reverse order. There’s definitely a fugue, and a firm embrace of the third movement of the Beethoven, but also Debussy in the group’s steady quasi-stroll through the enigmatic first movement. Bartok may not have grown into who he became yet, but the quartet focus on all the omens: the close harmonies, the refusenik defiance of any sense of resolution.

The sullen ballet of a second movement is rich with lingering sustain but also flickers and flares. The miniature of a third is devilishly portentous; the fourth is where the quartet dig in the hardest on this album, for tense bustle, and echo variations, and pure grim noir. It will give you goosebumps.