Danish String Quartet's Three "Firsts" Point the Way

One of the great joys of reviewing is discovering music with ideas so fresh, and harmonic progressions so inventive, that the simple act of listening without distraction inspires unique emotional and intellectual journeys. Such is the case every time I listen to the recent ECM New Series release, Danish String Quartet: Thomas Adès Per Nørgård Hans Abrahamsen.

The recording, available on both CD and as a hi-rez download from HDTracks, presents first string quartets penned at the very start of the careers of Adès (born 1971), Nørgård (b. 1932), and Abrahamsen (b. 1952). Each composer is intent on forging his own harmonic language as he explores structures and ideas that look to the future while acknowledging the past.

Adès was 23 when he composed his seven-movement Arcadiana for string quartet, Op. 12 (1994). The piece's name derives from the mythological home of the god Pan, who was often depicted as a horned, flute-playing, satyr-like seducer who did his thing in realms associated with shepherds, goats, and countless variations of an unspoiled romantic paradise—unspoiled, at least, to those who were not ravaged by his seductions. The seven-movement quartet progresses from a mist-enshrouded Venetian nocturne and a weird tango to the final movement, Lethe, which is named for the mythological Greek river associated with forgetfulness and oblivion.

Heard in hi-rez download format, that final gorgeous, lyrical movement, with its intimations of rare beauty, unfolds slowly until it simply stops. The more traditional harmonies of the penultimate movement, "O Albion," are exceedingly moving and tender. In prior movements inspired by bird catcher Papageno's glockenspiel in Mozart's The Magic Flute; Schubert's famous song, "Auf dem Wasser zu singen" (To be Sung on the Water); Watteau's amorous painting, "L'Embarquement pour Cythère" (The Voyage to Cythera); Debussy's solo piano piece, "L'Isle joyeuse" (The Joyous Island); and other equally colorful if ultimately elusive places, beings, and things that often have water as their theme, Adès' ever-intriguing music virtually overflows with delicious ideas that are expressed in a manner that makes me want to listen over and over.

Nørgård was just 20 when he created his two movement Quartetto Breve. Ushering us into a strange, dark land, he begins with exquisite, rarefied harmonies before ending, surprisingly, with far more familiar sounds. Supremely articulate liner-note writer Paul Griffiths speaks of the ending of the first movement as "the most striking—and beautiful—harmonic event in the whole piece," where chromaticism cedes to the lustrous "clarity of the perfect fifth." While such a technical description may give listeners who can hear those harmonies in their heads something to grasp onto, I, for one, prefer to remain in the realm of mystery and simply discover how music makes me feel at any given moment. As such, I note that the second movement begins in far more jagged, resolute fashion, with seemingly untamable repeated patterns buzzing away like eager bees eager to manufacture honey in any way they can. As I listen, my mind buzzes away in similar fashion.

Abrahamsen was 21 and a student of Nørgård when he wrote his 10 Preludes (String Quartet No.1). Inspired in part by the minimalist repetition of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, Abrahamsen's ten "short stories," as he calls them, amount to the most provocative work on the recording. The music begins jagged and sudden, and journeys through territories that evoke the sounds of Appalachian clogging, European folk tunes, and baroque music by Vivaldi or Telemann. The landscape of other preludes, however, is far less familiar. Ultimately, the repeated patterns that form the foundation of Abrahamsen's 10 short provocations take you to places and spaces beyond words. Ditto for all the music on this fascinating recording.

cgh's picture

Thanks for the review. I really love ECM New Series. Eicher just keeps soldiering on. This label introduces me (and the world) to classical music that I would not have ever heard without the release. These modern classical compositions tend to be sparse, atmospheric, and minimal; perfect for the label. Check out Dobrinka Tabakova: String Paths. Fantastic.

jporter's picture

Great recommendation. I came across this while following up on your article.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This is great.

Allen Fant's picture

Many Thanks! JVS

there is a wonderful Jazz movement in the greater EU right now.
Happy Listening!