CD Review:  The Danish String Quartet’s ‘Prism 1: Bach, Shostakovich, Beethoven’ 

The quartet is launching the first of a five-album project 
September 27, 2018 Updated: September 28, 2018

The Danish String Quartet has been garnering awards and thrilling audiences since it made its debut in 2002 at the Copenhagen Festival. The quartet is known for its thoughtful albums and live appearances, where the members perform both contemporary works and earlier composers who influenced them. They have also highlighted compositions by Scandinavian composers.

The members of the Danish String Quartet are violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen (born 1983), Frederik Oland (born 1984), violist Asbjorn Norgaard (born 1984), and cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin (born 1982, cello). The first three met at a summer music camp when they were pre-teens. Sorensen, Oland, and Asbjorn went on to study at the Copenhagen Academy of Music. Sjolin, who is Norwegian, joined the group in 2008.

The quartet’s new CD on ECM (their third for the label) is “Prism 1: Bach, Shostakovich, Beethoven.” This is the first in a projected project of five albums, each exploring the historical and musical influence of Bach’s fugal writing on Beethoven’s final string quartets, and then, through Beethoven, on compositions by later composers, including quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke, Bela Bartok, Felix Mendelssohn, and Anton Webern.

On “Prism 1,” the group plays the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, Op. 127 in E-Flat Major; Bach’s fugue in the same key (arranged by Mozart); and Shostakovich’s final string quartet, the No. 15 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 144.

The CD opens with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in E-Flat Major. The piece is nicknamed “St. Anne” because of the similarity between the theme of the fugue and the hymn tune by English composer William Croft (1678–1727), which is usually sung with the words of Isaac Watts’s hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  Despite the similarity, music historians believe that Bach never heard the hymn, and therefore that the similarity was coincidental.

Composed as part of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” Book II, the piece was originally written for harpsichord, and Bach is thought to have played it on the organ. Nowadays, it is usually performed by pianists, including Glenn Gould. The arrangement for string quartet was written by Mozart, who was a great admirer of Bach’s music.

The album cover of Prism 1Shostakovich’s haunting String Quartet No.15 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 144, was written the year before his death. In fact, he completed it when he was in the hospital.

Beethoven’s Quartet No.12 in E-Flat Major, Op. 127, is the first of his late quartets. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that violinist Felix Radicati complained that Beethoven’s Opus 59 quartets were “not music.” The composer responded, “Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age.” That may be true since the quartets were not favorably received at their first performance. Now, the late quartets are appreciated as the composer’s final great pieces.

The Danish String Quartet plays all these pieces with precision and feeling, measuring up to the best recordings of these works. “Prism 1” is a promising beginning for the series.

On Saturday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m., the Danish String Quartet will debut at 92nd Street Y (92Y). This will be the group’s only concert in New York City in the upcoming season. The program will include Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2 (Hob. III:32); String Quartet No. 1 by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen (born in 1952) and the only composer on the program who is still alive); and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, “Razumovsky.”

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.