By Thomas May
November 7, 2019; Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington, Seattle
- Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major, BWV 876 (arr. Mozart)
- Shostakovich: Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, Op. 144
- Beethoven: Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127
The Danish String Quartet‘s contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations this season includes a tripartite North American tour. As part of the fall segment of this tour, which is currently underway, the Scandinavian foursome made a recent stop in Seattle. On offer was the first of the Beethoven-themed programs they are presenting under the project name PRISM. The performance launched this season’s International Chamber Music series at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.
The PRISM project, which the Danish is recording for ECM (the first two have already been released), is about contextualizing this most myth-encrusted of composers. It consists of five distinct programs, each culminating in one of Beethoven’s late string quartets. These serve as the “prism” for music from the past—represented by a fugue by J.S. Bach arranged for string quartet—and post-Beethoven, in the form of a major quartet by one of his leading successors in the genre.
PRISM I’s program thus juxtaposes the first of the late quartets (Op. 127) with the Fugue in E-flat major from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 876, as arranged for quartet by Mozart) and the last of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets (Op. 144). On the most basic level, the musical thread linking these three pieces, personalities, and eras is the tonic E-flat—major in the Bach and Beethoven, minor in the Shostakovich. The Danish’s recording of PRISM I (2018) garnered a nomination for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance at this year’s Grammy Awards.
In the evening’s first half, the musicians segued directly from the relatively brief Bach fugue into the Shostakovich—as if this were a single work, the fugue itself a prelude to the profound reflection on mortality that the ailing Russian completed in 1974, just a little over a year before he died. It defies belief that these four musicians are only in their 30s—not merely because of the individual and ensemble confidence of their impeccable technique and intonation, but even more in view of the interpretive depth they sustain and convey so persuasively.
Mozart’s arrangement—one of the byproducts of his Bach obsession that anticipates Beethoven’s own immersion in early music—amplifies the contribution of each thread in the fugue. The Danish’s admirable balance of voices made the sudden shift into the dark, barren landscape of the Shostakovich all the more arresting, beginning with the threadbare tones of violinists Frederik Øland and Tonsgaard Sørensen in the most minimal of dialogues. Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (the band’s only non-Dane) laid out lean pedal tones that added to the effect of a vast, empty space, with impenetrable darkness looming beyond.
All six movements of Op. 144 are adagios. Four of them carry explicit associations with nighttime or grieving (Elegy, Serenade, Nocturne, and Funeral March), and an Intermezzo and Epilogue fill out this large-scale composition. The effect was at times hypnotizing, yet this never dulled into a generically lugubrious uniformity. The violent, knife-sharp crescendos passed among the players in the ironically titled Serenade had a visceral thrill, while a gentle susurration of surreal hope emerged in the textures of the Epilogue.
Most striking of all in this remarkably concentrated performance was the paradoxical sense of a dusky beauty that the players conveyed, despite—or, really, by virtue of the music’s unswerving bleakness. Thinking of the prism and light metaphor, I found myself recalling the subtle, subdued interiors of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, Edvard Munch’s contemporary.
Shaggy haired violist Asbjørn Nørgaard explained that the concept for PRISM grew out of their wish to get away from the lore of the late Beethoven quartets as the otherworldly products of a “crazed genius alone in his chamber,” cut off because of his deafness and “unconnected to the world.” Pointing to the composer’s obsession with old masters, he noted that the beam refracted from Bach through Op. 127 is “not so much the contrapuntal as the linear aspect.”
Nørgaard and his colleagues illustrated the point in a splendid performance of the Beethoven that was rewarding on several levels. The opening ensemble of chords seemed to explode with colors that were subsequently unfurled in the Allegro’s long-spun melodic line. The distinctive polish and sheen of their sound emerged from nuances, not from a smoothing over of textures into a homogeneous “beauty.”
Without obvious tricks and exaggerations, the Danish brought a buoyant spontaneity to their account. The Adagio acquired new colors in the context of the previously heard Shostakovich as the ensemble pulled and tugged at the melodic line until it crested to new heights. The Scherzo’s “mania” wasn’t overdone but instead took shape as currents of energy allowed to build and bubble just below the surface—subtle freedoms along with the comic release. In the vista that opens in the finale’s slowed-down coda, the Danish seemed to recall the fragile hope from the Shostakovich epilogue, refracted here through the spirit of Beethoven.
Such a richly satisfying and fulfilling performance required no encore, but the Danish treated the audience to a tender lagniappe, playing their arrangement of a Carl Nielsen song.