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DANISH STRING QUARTET – PRISM I / ECM New Series 2561

Bach, Shostakovich, Beethoven

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen: violin
Frederik Øland: violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard: viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin: violoncello

“There is probably no string quartet that I would rather hear play Beethoven at the moment than this foursome of three young Danes and their Norwegian cellist, who demonstrate unrivalled intensity, freedom in their playing and remarkable feel for the composer.”
- David Allen, New York Times

For its third ECM release, the Danish String Quartet – hailed by the Washington Post as “one of the best quartets before the public today” and as simply “terrific” by The Guardian – inaugurates a series of albums with the overarching title of Prism, in which the group will present one of Beethoven’s late string quartets in the context of a related fugue by J.S. Bach as well as a linked masterwork from the quartet literature. With Prism 1, it is the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, his grand Op. 127 in E-flat Major, alongside Bach’s luminous fugue in the same key (arranged by Mozart) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s final string quartet, No. 15 in E-flat minor, a haunted and haunting sequence of six adagios.

For Prism 1, the DSQ convened at the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany, the group applying its lyricism and spirit of ensemble to this interconnected sound world of Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich. Bach’s fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 876, was one of five pieces that Mozart transcribed for string quartet from his predecessor’s epochal collection of preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier. Like Mozart, Beethoven also revered Bach and studied The Well-Tempered Clavier closely, his playing of its pieces noted in press reports on the young performer. Beethoven’s five late string quartets were his ultimate statement in music; the first three of these late quartets were commissioned by a Russian prince, in 1822. Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets constitute the greatest cycle of such works after Beethoven; the rarified example of the German’s late quartets was surely on the Russian composer’s mind as he completed his final – and longest and most intimate – work in the genre, in 1974, the year before his death.

The spacious grandeur of Beethoven’s late quartets and, in particular, their epically hymnal slow movements – including that of the Op. 127, marked Adagio, mon non troppo e molto cantabile – were an obvious, powerful influence on the adagios of Shostakovich’s final quartet. Reflecting on the impact of Beethoven’s late string quartets, the DSQ note that “they changed the game. Every composer after Beethoven had to consider these five works and somehow figure out how to carry on the torch. Beethoven had taken a fundamentally linear development from Bach and exploded everything into myriad colors, directions and opportunities.”

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The Danish String Quartet is a group with an almost lifelong history of musical collaboration. Its three members born in Denmark – Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Øland and Asbjørn Nørgaard – first played chamber music together in a music summer camp before they were even teenagers, and then continued to do so throughout the school year, driven by their own enthusiasm. In 2001, Tim Frederiksen of the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, who had been the leader of Den Danske Strygekvartet, became the quartet’s mentor and main teacher. In 2006, the group made its first recordings – of Carl Nielsen’s quartets – as the Young Danish String Quartet, attracting the attention of publications from Gramophone to The New York Times. In 2008, Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin joined the quartet, and the group has since gone from strength to strength.

In 2009, the DSQ not only took First Prize in the Eleventh London International String Quartet Competition; it was also awarded four additional prizes: the 20th Century Prize, the Beethoven Prize, the Sidney Griller Award and the Menton Festival Prize. The DSQ also received the Carl Nielsen Prize, Denmark’s most important cultural award, in 2011. The group’s 2017 ECM album, Last Leaf, saw it explore the texturally rich, emotionally resonant world of Nordic folk music, from ages-old Christmas tunes to timeless funeral hymns, from medieval ballads and boat songs to such dances as minuet, waltz, reel and polska. The Danish quartet played its custom arrangements of this material with the lush tone and virtuoso focus that had earned the quartet such plaudits as “spellbinding” from Strings magazine for its ECM New Series debut of 20th-century compositions by Per Nørgård, Hans Abrahamsen and Thomas Adès, released in 2016. Both albums were singled out as among the best albums of the year by The New York Times.

© Studio Svengali, August 2019
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