July 2023 Classical Record Reviews

Danish String Quartet: Prism V: Beethoven, Webern, Bach
Danish String Quartet
ECM 2565 (reviewed as 24/96 download). 2023. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Markus Heiland, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Almost five years after they released the first recording in their Prism series, the Danish String Quartet gives us Prism V. As in previous installments, the DSQ has paired a late Beethoven string quartet—here the extraordinary, final String Quartet No.16 in F major, Op.135—with a related fugue by J.S. Bach and a quartet by a later master.

What has changed is maturity. The quartet's members began playing together in their early teens and are now all married with children. In Prism I, their artistry was already uncompromisingly honest and fearless; now they have deepened their willingness to embrace mystery from a place of wonder. This quality is most evident in the Beethoven, which moves between joy, harsh realities, and, in its penultimate movement, sublime reverence before the holy of holies.

One of the DSQ's many skills surfaces when a quiet passage ends with an extended note in the first violin. They sometimes begin the note with straight tone before ending it with a fine, superbly judged vibrato. It's a technique more often embraced by jazz and pop instrumentalists and vocalists than by their classical counterparts. But when intonation is as perfect as it is on this recording, the opening of the blossom pulls you deeper into the beauty of the music.

The beauty isn't only in the playing; it's also—especially—in the music, even in the early, romantic Webern String Quartet from 1905, which references Beethoven's Op.135.

Prism V's opening track is the Chorale prelude "Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit" ("I hereby come before your throne"). As Bach lay dying, he thought of this prelude's words as he attempted to complete the Contrapunctus XIV from The Art of Fugue, the final selection of this last disc in the series.—Jason Victor Serinus

Mahler: Symphony No.9
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, cond.
BIS 2476 (auditioned as CD). 2023. Robert Suff, prod.; Marion Schwebel, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Mahler's Ninth has become part of the regular repertoire, but that doesn't mean it's easy to get it right. Vänskä, the Minnesotans, and BIS get it right.

In the intricate first and third movements, Vänskä is masterful. In the first movement, for all the activity, he consistently highlights the main lines, drawing them in sharp relief over the busywork; numerous handoffs among the wind parts are seamlessly executed. Similarly, in the incisive, alert Rondo-Burleske, all the pointillistic instrumental shifts, even within fast-moving phrases, are impeccably balanced and projected.

I was most impressed by Vänskä's handling of the final Adagio. After decades of conductors nudging its tempo toward Andante—it sounds good to start but causes trouble with the later counterpoint—he plays it at a correctly expansive tempo, which also leaves him room to pick up the tempo where Mahler asks. He colors the later restatement with brass doublings to assertive, almost brazen effect.

There are a few flaws. In the weighty, well-sprung Ländler, the abrupt tempo shifts seem oddly uncomfortable; some are overly careful, others not quite convinced. The horn upbeats going into the Rondo-Burleske's final Presto are draggy, though everyone else "snaps to" smartly. And, in the Finale, after the unison violins' impassioned threnody, the lower strings' downbeat doesn't speak immediately, momentarily leaving them hanging.

The engineering is marvelous, containing the larger mass of sound easily and smoothly, conveying the sense of several instrumental layers within the overall texture. The overlapping string sections, even the first and second violins, are easily distinguishable. At the other extreme, the sparest passages of the Finale are delectable—you can taste them.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Protean Quartet: Haydn, String Quartet Op.33 No.6; Almeida Mota, String Quartet Op.7 No.1; Beethoven, String Quartet Op.18 No.1
Eudora EUD SACD 2301 (auditioned as SACD), 2023. Gonzalo Noqué, prod. and eng.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

The members of the Protean Quartet, at their best, produce handsome, firm-bowed sounds that coalesce into a consistent, evenly balanced sonority throughout the range, and their phrasing is sensitive and musically informed. I was delighted to get to know them.

I was also delighted by their full-bodied Haydn—and it's good to hear this piece, for once, divorced from the rest of Opus 33. The frolicsome Vivace assai has a lively, rolling momentum; it feels more like a finale than an opening. Troubled episodes darken the upbeat Andante and the closing rondo, where the Proteans supply a more emotionally ambivalent projection. A chipper Scherzo separates those movements.

Portuguese-born Juan Pedro Almeida Mota's quartet begins elusively, with a stark unison answered by wispy, unstable short motifs. The ensuing Allegro, however, offers conventional dramatic agitation, Mozartean in spirit if not in sound. The players' no-nonsense Allegretto keeps the wistful Romanza from overt sentimentality. The Minuetto and Rondó are both slighter, with higher, lighter textures than one expects; their simple, quiet concluding cadences arrive somewhat suddenly.

The Beethoven somehow heads in the wrong direction. The forthright first movement is excellent, with a sure sense of shape and alert rhythmic address; the calmer second group "settles" nicely, without losing the basic pulse. Thereafter, the playing becomes less certain. The Adagio more or less elapses; the Scherzo's quiet opening is soft-centered; the finale's running figures aren't ideally sure-footed. It all starts out as full-fledged, big-B Beethoven and ends as another pleasant Classical quartet.

First-class engineering clearly positions the instruments within a warm but unobtrusive ambience.—Stephen Francis Vasta