Danish String Quartet
Danish String Quartet
Frederik Øland violin
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Cover: Eberhard Ross
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 12, 2021
Ludwig van Beethoven’s five late quartets must be reckoned with. In the words of the Danish String Quartet, presenting the String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor of 1826, they “changed the game.” In saying as much, we might very well ask ourselves: What was the game to begin with? How far back does it go? With whom did it start? Augmenting the famous profession that “all roads lead back to Bach,” this recording charts as many paths forward as it does retrospectively. As for the game itself, we can say that it involves not only musical idioms but also hints of visual art, literature, religion, war, migration, and, dare I say, hope.
To know Beethoven’s Op. 131 is to take a full view of humanity, with all its triumphs and tragedies. The opening Adagio, the first of seven movements, spins fibers of tenderness into a muscle that flexes in tune with emotional suspensions, thus emphasizing the DSQ’s fitness as much as the composer’s. The Allegro that follows surprises with dance-like energies but may just as easily be interpreted as a coping mechanism against the grief that preceded it. Its extroversions are deeply entwined with introversion. Other movements, like the lively Presto, share their secrets more openly, taking on a litheness of clarity rarely heard in other renditions. The closing Allegro wears its heart on its sleeve just as securely, emboldening (not flaunting) its awareness as a modus operandi of exposition. But it’s in the gargantuan fourth movement, a nearly 15-minute Andante, where most of this vessel’s cargo is tallied in its keep. What begins as a spider’s thread of narrative sweetness morphs, as if in answer to the subtle insistence of the cello’s pizzicato, into a fog of impressions that resolves itself into a dew of urgent memories. All the more fitting that this quartet was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. For while its mixed receptions have morphed into high regard, the music reminds us of the necessarily contrasting organs in its body. As these meticulous musicians remind us, none will function on its own but only when connected to the larger whole.
For his String Quartet No. 1, op. 7, Sz. 40 (1909), Béla Bartók took inspiration from Beethoven’s opus 131. Both open in lament. That said, Bartók evokes a distinct shade of darkness made modern not only by its tonality but also in the interpretation so lovingly given here. The DSQ enhances the piece’s metallic sheen without neglecting the patina it already had when first composed. When the viola announces itself in the opening Lento, it does so not out of desperation but infirmity. At this point, the heart is already so weakened that beating its drum feels like an uphill climb. Somehow, Bartók affords us a view of the valley to show that achievement means nothing without hardship. Even the Allegretto that follows emerges hesitantly, an animal out of hibernation before proclaiming its heritage. The digging cello of the Introduzione that follows sets up the storytelling of an Allegro for the ages. The atmosphere is chiseled in something more durable than stone: an alloy of reinforcement made possible only by the laying of human hands on natural materials. Forgoing any illusion of permanence (everything decays), Bartók recognizes that imperfection is always a reliable receptacle for creative ideas. As the strings move—sometimes in unison, mostly apart—they prove that cohesion isn’t always obvious or visible. Rather, it is born through the message of interpretation. Every gesture of insistence in the violins gives way to glorious resolution, jumping from the edge of a collective inhalation. Is this triumph or just a return to baseline? You decide.
Because Beethoven was deeply inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, it only makes sense to include a fugue (this one in C-sharp minor, the very key signature used in Beethoven’s 14th quartet), as arranged by Emanuel Aloys Förster. Its tessellated configuration is a breath of higher origin, smoothing over the postmodern cracks with a reminder of what makes beauty earn its name: the scars of our destitution.