Danes Peer Through the Lens of Bach

The still youthful Danish String Quartet, whose 2016 release on ECM New Series inspired this glowing review in Stereophile, has returned with another hi-rez recording, Prism I (ECM New Series 2561). The first in a projected series of recordings for ECM New Series that will place one of Beethoven's late string quartets in the context of a related fugue by J.S. Bach and another linked quartet, Prism I begins with Mozart's string quartet arrangement of Bach's Fugue in in E-flat, BWV 875, from The Well-Tempered Clavier. It then invites us to discover what, besides key, Bach's short fugue shares in common with Beethoven's String Quartet No.12 in E-flat, Op.127, and Shostakovich's final quartet, the 6-movement String Quartet No. 15 in e-flat.

If the DSQ's approach to Bach's famous fugue for keyboard is a bit more relaxed than the more pointed and percussively acute version from the Emerson String Quartet, their Shostakovich more than compensates with its intensity. Beginning with an "elegy" that eventually leads to a "Funeral March," this haunting work is like no other. The silence and exquisite softness that the Danes hold in perfect balance through much of Shostakovich's long first movement only shift when the composer adds more darkness and emptiness to the mix.

The second movement "Serenade," which is anything but consoling as notes slash through its sonic landscape, gives way to an Intermezzo and Nocturne whose unending sadness cedes to presentiments of terror and finality. After a funeral march which contains passages that bring to mind Schubert's unforgettable adagio from the posthumously published cello quintet—imagine what the quintet might have sounded like had Schubert rejected all notions of transcendence, and you'll get a sense of where this music resides—Shostakovich ends with a tragic epilogue in which each disruptive pluck and skirmish conveys unadulterated fright. This is a perfectly judged performance of music that chills with its emotional honesty and despair.

By contrast, Beethoven's Op.127, completed just two years before his death in 1827, begins with astounding energy. The Danes—actually three Danes who met each other as children at a summer music camp, and a Norwegian who joined them six years after the quartet began in 2002—bring to the opening movement all the vigor and excitement that Shostakovich no longer felt for life.

The men also bask in the exquisite silence of Beethoven's extended second-movement adagio. Much of their playing is truly sublime, albeit without the last iota of sweetness that some quartets bring to this music. While first violinist Frederik Øland does betray a bit of sluggish, self-conscious fingering in exposed passages that demand precise intonation, the playing as a whole will likely leave you marveling at Beethoven's seemingly inexhaustible creativity.

Heard via a 24/96 download—you can also stream the album in MQA on Tidal—the recording's wide dynamic range really helps bring the energetic third movement home. Beethoven's fertile imagination again comes to the fore in the concluding Finale/Allegro.

If the Danish String Quartet is not exactly overflowing with joie de vivre—on this recording at least, they seem more at home with weighty sorrow than with light-filled happiness—Beethoven's genius sweeps everything before it.

DarthMatzoBrei's picture


As much as I enjoy reading your equipment reviews (even if none of the components are my cup of tea), I genuinely love your music reviews and suggestions even more. I've added at least 20 to my Tidal playlist over the past two years and not a dud in the bunch. Thank you.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This is really sweet of you. As each day goes by, and more killings and death threats make the news, this acknowledgment of our shared humanity is deeply appreciated.


volvic's picture

Given they way we are as humans, I am surprised it doesn't happen more often. Naive of me yes, but I firmly believe listening to this music can make us all better human beings, especially those who haven't heard or dabbled in it. Keep doing your part JVS - with love and respect.
Nick aka volvic

rschryer's picture

You've just revealed so much about yourself. Is this a NYC effect?

volvic's picture

Don’t think so, always believed in the power of music to heal. It is a naive notion I know, but if more people experienced our hobby perhaps their savage inclinations might be soothed, somewhat. So to that I say turn off the tv today and tune into WKCR for Clifford Brown birthday broadcast, on NYC’s great radio station.

ok's picture

part of the problem: human needs are mostly common; things that fulfill them – well, not always so.

johnnythunder's picture

reviews and have purchased many of your recommendations. I share your love of music that expresses these universal feelings and emotions with passion, conviction and virtuosity. I'll quote the liner notes from a favorite Beethoven piano CD which states this way more eloquently than I can - "If his music is 'about' anything...it is about the reality and commonality of what is means to be human." I and others find solace in the music of Beethoven (and Mozart, Haydn and etc.x1,000,000) as an antidote to the increasingly toxic atmosphere of our country. Finding sanity in this music is the greatest advertisement one can make for our hobby.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JVS is doing a great service to the Stereophile readers by recommending these recordings .......... Thank you JVS :-) ............