Turning the Prism: A Review and Interview with the Danish String Quartet

Since making their ECM New Series debut with a program of works by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen, the young musicians known collectively as the Danish String Quartet have secured a most suitable recording home in the label’s ever-growing annals. Having explored unfamiliar territory as intimately as breathing, they now approach familiar repertoire as distantly as foreign travel. This is, perhaps, something of the meaning behind their PRISM series, which pairs Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets with music of Johann Sebastian Bach and, between them, a modern work that ties the two together. When I caught up with the quartet via email, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard had the following to say about the title of this personal traversal:

“Just as a prism breaks light into different colors, we pass a linear beam of light from Bach to Beethoven. The original beam—in this case, Bach—already contains all the colors and directions of the future. In our interpretation, the late Beethoven quartets, typically considered a point of arrival, function as a prism, a pathway into something else. This puts all of the music into a very unusual perspective: Bach is the oldest, but already contains the future. Beethoven isn’t the end of a road. And the modern pieces are created from the oldest mold imaginable.”

I asked Nørgaard to expand on how Beethoven and Bach came to be the frame around these roving images:

“A while ago we found ourselves slightly bored with much of the classical programming (including our own). Too much randomness, too little connection. If art museums were curated like classical concerts used to be, no one would bother going. Then back in 2012 we had a collective ‘aha’ moment when Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performed in Copenhagen. They started out with Ligeti’s Atmosphères and continued with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. By connecting these masterworks, he created a completely new framing but with elegance and highest respect. A small trick, but a brilliant way to serve this great old wine in a beautiful new glass. This idea made it into our five-album PRISM project. The specific connection to Bach came after reading Beethoven: The Music and the Life, in which Lewis Lockwood shows a connection between Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier late Beethoven.”

Such tandem dynamics of parallelism and interweaving, of distance and proximity, are particularly evident in the first of the series.

2561 X

PRISM I (ECM New Series 2561)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2016, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 21, 2018

Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, as arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the opening bookend of this installment, and by suggestion of its resonance sets the parameters, pours the concrete, and delineates the land for purposes of construction. And what a mighty structure we find built on this foundation in the String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor of Dmitri Shostakovich. A haunting piece in six movements, its opening Elegy, at 13 minutes in length, takes clear inspiration from Beethoven, and with it starts on a journey through some of mortality’s darkest channels, as Shostakovich crafts the quartet’s existence as a body of organs.

The Serenade that follows has rarely sounded so tactile, and finds itself rendered as a dance of understated capture. The DSQ seems to feel so much about what Shostakovich meant to convey, and by that communication flips details inside out. The sonorities of the Nocturne are of especially brilliant subtlety. Muted strings unmute the soul. After a harrowing Funeral March, they conclude with a dynamic Epilogue, whispering a farewell in E-flat minor before its major counterpart is leaked by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.

In his liner note for the album, Nørgaard describes their first encounter with the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven as a humbling experience. What they first approached with academic flair they quickly found to be brimming with possibility and meaning. To them, Beethoven’s Opus 127 in particular felt “as if it had fallen down from outer space onto our music stands, disconnected from music history and tradition.” It begins with huge swaths of chord fabric, unfurled before instruments sharp as a blade yet not seeking to cut. It renders introverted textures in an extroverted language. The lengthy Adagio is its centerpiece, a 16-minute chain of hymnal variations for which the quartet plays, put so precisely by Paul Griffiths in his booklet essay, as “four hearts differently beating, but at the same rate.” A pall of shadows and softest light given fresh nutrients by this performance. The following Scherzo flies off the bows of the quartet with especial providence, while the Finale speaks in a similar language of planes and caesuras, achieving transcendence in the final stretch.

“When you spend so much time with a certain repertoire, you naturally end up having a very intimate relationship with it. On top of that I think we all enjoy digging into the music we play and finding all the little details that are just below the surface. We are just the lucky vessels that get to convey fantastic music. If you pick the good things out there, you don’t need to push all kinds of intent into it. It’s fine on its own as long as you do it justice in the way you play it. That being said, we never intentionally try to play in a very ‘intimate’ way. Maybe what sounds ‘intimate’ is actually our respect for the music.”

I wonder, then, how he might distinguish this album from their first two programs and, similarly, what binds it:

“Our two initial albums on ECM were ‘standalones.’ Everything is connected in the PRISM series, however. It’s a wonderful feeling doing projects like this. It teaches you so much as a musician. We tend to think that masterpieces are ‘otherworldly’ when in fact they were the result of a bunch of human beings inspiring and learning from each other. Like us. They were just exceptionally good at it! What stays the same is the stable ECM sound that we have come to expect. We truly enjoy working with people who are so passionate about what they do. It clearly reflects in the top-notch albums that come out of ECM and inspires us to do better.”

Listeners can be assured of placing this and the second volume squarely within that top-notch category.

2562 X

 

PRISM II (ECM New Series 2562)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded May 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 13, 2019

Bach’s Fugue in B minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, thus ushers us into the project’s continuation in the manner of an old friend, welcoming with an open door and an open heart. Moving with tenderness and spiritual comportment, it touches a window of reflection into unknown futures, tracing patterns of suspension and transcendence.

Following this is Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1983 composition in which ghosts of antiquity are astir. The opening Andante’s sirens move with grace and finality, even as they activate seeds that will one day grow into life. The contrast between stretches of quietude and heaves of mourning are transfixing. The middle movement’s self-refractive allusions are brilliantly examined, rendering Shostakovich-leaning textures and palpable flavors. The final movement, marked Pesante, returns to that keening quality of the first, treating every sonorous shift as a veil to be dyed and worn as a screen through which to view a monochromatic world. It ends off-center, waiting for something to speak. For me, the Kronos Quartet’s version of this harrowing masterwork on Winter Was Hard has long been my reference recording of choice, and I can say with heartfelt assurance that its throne must now be rebuilt for two.

In light of this darkness, Beethoven’s epical String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major turns night into dawn. The opening stretch of landscape resolves into a jagged dance of joy. Its adjoining Presto even injects a bit of humor into the proceedings.

The three subsequent movements are like paintings in sound, each portraying the same scene from a different angle. The DSQ opts for the quartet’s original version, including the monumental Große Fuge (op. 133) as the finale. After a declamatory overture, it morphs into some of Beethoven’s most boisterous writing for the genre. A superb account in every way.

Holding both programs together as one, it’s easy to ascribe a visual quality to their emerging narrative. First violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen agrees:

“Schnittke and Shostakovich do create very strong images—to me more so than Beethoven and Bach. I guess that the beauty of music is that every single listener and performer can have different images in mind when hearing/performing it: it’s a very open art form in that regard. Of course as a quartet, we strive to project one common story when performing a piece. Often it’s easier to think in images rather than being too concrete—loud, soft, fast, slow—when studying a piece of music.”

And perhaps we can ascribe a cinematic aesthetic by the hand of producer Manfred Eicher, whose touch so often turns sound into physical action. Says second violinist Frederik Øland:

“It’s always lovely to work with Manfred. His presence exudes great authority, and we always feel very committed when he’s around. His overwhelming passion for recording, plus 50 years of experience in the business, gives you a totally unique and very personal touch on the records that I find rare in today’s music industry. I would argue that he is old school, yet innovative. Timeless, in fact.”

The album’s engineering, every bit as beautiful as the playing, confirms an underlying dedication to recorded art. Øland again:

“Luckily, we have great people working ‘behind the scenes’ on our recordings. I’ve often thought that the producer and engineer’s names should be on the front of the cover, just as much as the musicians. We always start with adjusting the sound, so that everyone is happy and can relate to what they actually hear, but from there much of editing and engineering is left out of our hands. It’s really a matter of trust, but with that said, I think our sound is very well taken care of.”

And listeners can feel confident walking into these beams of light knowing they, too, will be very well taken care of.

Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf (ECM New Series 2550)

2550 X

Danish String Quartet
Last Leaf

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin, harmonium, piano, glockenspiel
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded January 2017, The KirstenKjær Museum, Frøstrup
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Mixed June 2017 at Tritonus Studio, Stuttgart, by Rone Tonsgaard Sørensen, Manfred Eicher, and Markus Heiland (engineer)
Produced by the Danish String Quartet
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

After an intimately electrifying 2016 ECM debut, the Danish String Quartet follow with this program of original arrangements so well suited to the source material that if their collective heart were a moon, it would be full and bright in the night sky of their creativity. The album’s seed is the Danish Christmas hymn “Now found is the fairest of roses.” First published by poet-theologist H. A. Brorson in 1732, it’s played as if in slow motion and captures the musicians in a film of artful restraint. That the tune concludes rather than begins the sequence is indicative of an underlying philosophy at play, in which stars regress back to their gaseous birth, mere wisps of galactic thought rendered sentient by the incubator of time.

At the other end of the spectrum is “Despair not, o heart.” This Lutheran funeral hymn, first notated in 1517, adds the elegiac cast of a harmonium, and with it the feeling of the open sea unraveled in “Shore.” Written by the quartet’s cellist, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, this self-described “folk fantasy” evokes sand and tide while also tracking the footprints left behind and washed away along its canvas. It finds later parallel in Sjölin’s “Naja’s Waltz,” a heartfelt piece of latticework that feels like a gift from father to daughter, and “Intermezzo,”a beautiful segue into “Shine you no more,” by lead violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. A reel partly inspired by John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” it moves kaleidoscopically and jigs its way across the grasslands.

Much of the liminal material at hand is Danish in origin, including the graceful “Minuet No. 60” from a 1760s collection of folk melodies transcribed by Rasmus Storm. Coordinated to the point of feeling untethered by convention, it moves as dancers in their prime. The song “Hur var du i aftes så sildig” (Where were you last night so late), from the same collection, treats pizzicato like a series of semantic puzzle pieces. Other highlights from this geographical focus are “The Dromer,” a so-called English dance collected by the Bast Brothers between 1763-1782, and “Æ Rømeser,” an example of the dance form known as the “sønderhoning,” unique to the southern Danish island village of Sønderho. Slow and sure, but transitioning into a more forthright sway, it grounds the listener as a prerequisite for leaving the earth behind.

Further travels take the quartet from the Swedish traditional “Polska from Dorotea,” attributed to fiddler Johan August Andersson (1866-1902) and filled with luscious interplay from the violin and the Faroese mythology of “Stædelil” to the astonishing sonorities of “Unst Boat Song,” an old Norse song from the Shetland Islands, and “Fastän,” a contemporary Swedish polska by Eva Sæther that ends with a trail of piano.

Regardless of origin, the quartet plays these all with such grace, attention to color, and scenic integrity, that where they’re going is never in question. In their handling, the last leaf becomes the first of another in a cycle of decay and burgeoning life, for which they are humble interpreters. We, in turn, are humbled to witness their unfurling.