Prism V - Beethoven, Webern, Bach

Danish String Quartet

The Danish String Quartet bring their highly acclaimed Prism project to its conclusion. In each volume of this series a particular Bach fugue is connected to a late Beethoven quartet which, in turn, is connected to a quartet by a later master: “A beam of music is split through Beethoven’s prism,” in the Danes’ words. “The whole approach invites active, committed listening,” The Guardian observed. “The group plays with virtuosity, intensity and tenderness.” The project has been eight years in the making. Now on the fifth and final volume, Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale prelude Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit “opens up like a flower” (as Paul Griffiths writes in the liner notes) to preface Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major. Anton Webern’s early String Quartet, composed in 1905 – and inspired both by Beethoven and Schoenberg – follows, and the programme returns to Bach with Contrapunctus 14 from The Art of the Fugue.
Das Danish String Quartet bringt sein hochgelobtes Prism-Projekt zum Abschluss. In jeder Ausgabe dieser Reihe wird eine bestimmte Bach-Fuge mit einem späten Beethoven-Quartett verbunden, das wiederum mit einem Quartett eines späteren Meisters verbunden ist: "Ein Strahl der Musik wird durch das Prisma Beethovens gespalten", so die Dänen. "Der gesamte Ansatz lädt zu aktivem, engagiertem Zuhören ein", so The Guardian. "Die Gruppe spielt mit Virtuosität, Intensität und Zärtlichkeit". An dem Projekt wurde acht Jahre lang gearbeitet. In der fünften und letzten Ausgabe öffnet sich Johann Sebastian Bachs Choralvorspiel Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit "wie eine Blume" (wie Paul Griffiths im Booklet schreibt), um Ludwig van Beethovens Streichquartett Nr. 16 in F-Dur einzuleiten. Es folgt Anton Weberns frühes, 1905 komponiertes Streichquartett, das sowohl von Beethoven als auch von Schönberg inspiriert wurde, und das Programm kehrt mit Contrapunctus 14 aus Die Kunst der Fuge zu Bach zurück.
Featured Artists Recorded

June 2021, Festsal KFUM/KFUK, Copenhagen

  • 1Chorale prelude "Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit", BWV 668
    (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • String Quartet No.16 in F major, op. 135
    (Ludwig van Beethoven)
  • 2Allegretto06:52
  • 3Vivace03:16
  • 4Assai lento, cantante e tranquillo07:40
  • 5Grave, ma non troppo tratto07:25
  • 6String Quartet (1905)
    (Anton Webern)
  • The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
    (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 7Contrapunctus 1412:18
The DSQ’s ‚Prism‘ is Essential Listening! […] Listen to any of the Bach fugues on the ‚Prism’ releases, and you find that few, if any, of the thematic entries are underlined or even pointed out. Even when they adopt the bare tone they favor in Bach, they adjust their balances to welcome a new line, a new thought, with exquisite, barely perceptible ease. […] You get the sense in these recordings that every bar of music has been as carefully considered as it should be, that the minutest aspect of each note hasbeen discussed; the control of sonority and articulation on show is absolute, even as the range of both is vast.
David Allen, The New York Times
Bach’s solemn organ chorale prelude BWV668 and Contrapunctus XIV from ‘The Art of Fugue’ provide the bookends for this final instalment, the players responding naturally and subtly to each other and bringing clarity and fluidity to their contrapuntal interaction […] The blending of timbre and secure intonation are matched by playing of conversational vitality in the opening Allegro and fiery scherzo of Beethoven’s op.135. The slow movement’s meditative variations are conveyed with radiance and intensity […] the finale is negotiated with seasoned skill and authority, the impassioned intensity and anguish of its introductory material contrasting sharply with the affirmative joy and vigour of its Allegro. The fundamental motif of Webern’s tripartite, single-movement String Quartet (1905) links well with op.135’s finale, signalling its serial potential before releasing a sound world warmed by late-Romantic tonality and textures, exquisitely shaded and balanced. Throughout, ECM’s engineers do full justice to these refined, coherent and erudite performances, which combine an exhilarating sweep with minute attention to details of phrasing and timbre.
Robin Stowell, The Strad
Diesmal steht Beethovens spätes Opus 135 im Fokus. Einmal mehr stellt das dänische Quartett seine technischen und gestalterischen Qualitäten unter Beweis: Da ist zum einen die Klarheit der einzelnen Stimmen, die Linienführung, etwa im dritten Satz, gepaart mit sparsamem Vibrato. Aber da gibt es auch grimmige, schroffe Attacken, so im Vivace. Hinzu kommen eine warme Klangfärbung und die Fähigkeit zur dramatischen Verdichtung. […] Beim Streichquartett von Anton Webern entsteht über weite Strecken eine Luftigkeit, die diese Musik nicht als komplex, sondern als völlig natürlich erscheinen lässt. […] Zum Schluss wartet ’Contrapunctus XIV’ aus Bachs ‘Kunst der Fuge’. Wie sich die vier Musiker hier ins Piano zurückziehen und daraus, in verhaltenem Tempo, die einzelnen Stimmen entwickeln, sie hervor- und zurücktreten lassen,wie sie mit langem, nie ermüdendem Atem das Scheue, Kontemplative dieser Musik herausarbeiten, das ist von uneingeschränkt hoher Qualität.
Christoph Vratz, Fono Forum
Some eight years in the making, the Danish Quartet’s survey of the Beethoven late quartets reaches journey’s end: ‘last words’ are in order. And not just Beethoven’s quartet swansong Op. 135. Bach has been a constant point of reference throughout the series, and the musicians bring an effortless beatific refinement to an arrangement of the chorale prelude ‚Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit‘, a work supposedly dictated by Bach from his deathbed. […] The series’ customary 20th-century companion is Webern’s single-movement String Quartet of 1905, a work suffused with the voluptuous expressionism of his teacher Schoenberg’s sextet ‚Verklärte Nacht‘, and it’s delivered with expansive insight and lyrical sweep. Op. 135, meanwhile, discloses all the hallmarks of close study, intelligent interrogation and fastidiously calibrated response, that have characterised the performances throughout the cycle. The insouciant opening is lovingly detailed; the Vivace scampers along before the music turns formidably truculent […] A potent reading, potently illuminated by the contextualising Bach and Webern.
Paul Riley, BBC Music Magazine
The juxtapositions on each album are highly rewarding. Equally important is the fact that the programming allows for the discovery of quartets less well-known than the Beethoven pieces; to me, for instance, the Schnittke and Webern compositions were completely new, and I’m very glad to have made their acquaintance. Rest assured, all the pieces that accompany the Bach and Beethoven are well worth listening to repeatedly in their own right.  And then, of course, there are the performances. […] the three Danes met as children at summer camp, while the Norwegian cellist joined the quartet in 2008 – and it shows in the precision and empathy of their interactions. Their playing is wonderfully transparent and nuanced throughout (well served, of course, by the clarity and resonance of ECM’s production), ranging from pure power to exquisite delicacy, strident dissonance to elegant lyricism as the music requires; it is refined, intelligent, balanced, unflashy, meticulous – but never remotely dry. There is beauty in abundance. In short, this is marvellous music marvellously performed. A review of Prism V in the New York Times claimed, ‘these releases must qualify as some of the most essential listening of the past decade.’ I am tempted to agree.
Geoff Andrew, Notes & Observations
The DSQ bring quiet radiance rather than sentimentality to the ‘deathbed chorale’ commonly appended to The Art of Fugue; the incomplete fugue unfolds in spacious legato lines, articulated as a string quartet rather than a keyboard transcription, in tune with the cool, Rothko-esque mood of secular devotion that infuses the series as a whole.
Peter Quantrill, Gramophone
This is the last outing in Danish String Quartet’s ‘Prism’ series. Each of the five recordings has included a late Beethoven string quartet, a related Bach fugue, and a later work influenced by Beethoven. Prism V’s program begins with ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ich,’ Bach’s chorale prelude BWV 668, arranged for string quartet. It also includes ‘Contrapunctus 14’ from Bach’s Art of Fugue, Anton Webern’s String Quartet (1905), and Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135. The performance of the chorale prelude is beautiful, played with expressive tone and ardent phrasing, with the Danish Quartet not pretending to be playing on period instruments […] It is an enormously fruitful collection of pieces. One waits with anticipation to see what the Danish String Quartet will next commit to disc. It will surely be as elegantly curated as the ‘Prism’ series.
Christian Carey, Sequenza 21
This striking recording finds Beethoven No. 16 followed by the intricate Webern String Quartet—both are bookended by a pair of Bach strings works: ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ich, Chorale Prelude’, BWV 668, and the pastoral ‘Art of the Fugue’, NWV 1080. In this setting, the Danish—Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland, violins; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello—provide context for what the ensemble has called the ‘mind blowing’ nature of Beethoven’s five late string quartets. You’ll be hard pressed to find a piece of music as beautiful as No. 16’s elegantly played third movement lento assai. The Prism series is a powerful testament to the enduring nature of these monumental works and of the talent of this group of three Danes, who met as youths at a summer music camp, and a Norwegian cellist. It’s clear that this series is a rite of passage that transcends mere performance.
Greg Cahill, Strings Magazine
Les Danois opposent des lignes fuselées et homogénes, tantôt lumineuses, tantôt plongées dans les ténèbres, soutenues par une acoustique ample: une option qui fait mouche dans cette œuvre métaphysique […]  Le Danois proposent une lecture sans concession  à la fois sombre, expressionniste et concentrée, d’une precision redoubtable et donnée quasiment sans vibrato.
Fabienne Bouvet, Classica
Les textures sonores sont delicates et homogènes, la conduit des phrases se déploie avec une grande souplesse. […] C’est une grande réactivité expressive des artistes qui s’illustre tout le long du disque.
Caroline  Bertille, Vu Metre
“The whole approach invites active, committed listening. The group plays with virtuosity, intensity and tenderness.” Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
From conception to completion, the Danish String Quartet’s Prism project has been almost eight years in the making: “our string quartet ritual of passage”, as the players now look back upon it, a process of discovery. Lines of connection are drawn in the five Prism volumes, from a Bach fugue through one of the late Beethoven quartets  to the music of a subsequent composer: “A beam of music is split through Beethoven’s prism,” in the Danes’ words.
Throughout the series the DSQ have emphasized that “late Beethoven is not a disconnected island in music,” but rather “a continuation from Bach and the old masters,” which, furthermore, points toward the future. Previous recordings in the series have addressed the influence of late Beethoven on Shostakovich, Schnittke, Bartók and Mendelssohn. On Prism V, Bach and Beethoven are heard alongside Anton Webern, and musical affinities are newly illuminated.
As the group remark in a performers’ note on Prism V, “The music on these albums is delightfully complex and open-ended…A late quartet by Beethoven is an incredibly intricate piece of art. One can spend a lifetime zooming in on every inch of the score and still find new details. Each bar, each moment is a maze of possible interpretational paths…”
On the fifth and final Prism volume,  Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale prelude Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit “opens up like a flower” (as Paul Griffiths writes in the liner notes)  to preface Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major. Anton Webern’s early String Quartet, composed in 1905 – and inspired both by Beethoven’s op. 135  and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – follows, and the programme returns to Bach with Contrapunctus 14 from The Art of the Fugue.
The Danish String Quartet’s three Danish-born members, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Øland and Asbjørn Nørgaard first played chamber music together in a music summer camp before they were even teenagers. In 2006 they made their first recordings as the Young Danish String Quartet, immediately 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, with repertoire embracing core classical and contemporary music, as well as folk music, which they also play with verve and commitment – as evidenced on their ECM album Last Leaf  (2017). The group’s first ECM recording from 2015 comprised Thomas Adès’s Arcadiana, Per Nørgård’s Quartetto Breve, and Hans Abrahamsen’s 10 Preludes.
The DSQ’s Prism series of recordings was initiated in 2016 with the first volume incorporating Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 15. The album received a Grammy nomination. Prism II features Bach’s B-flat minor Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130/“Große Fuge” Op. 133, and Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3. (“A revelatory connected soundscape in which Beethoven’s introspection feels more unsettling than usual.” – BBC Music Magazine.) On Prism III the quartet interprets Bach’s C-sharp minor Fugue, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 131 and Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1., prompting Stereophile to ask “What on Prism III is more exquisite, the music or the musicianship? The question is beside the point when you’re dealing with the exalted level of refinement, restraint, and elegance that the Danish String Quartet brings to the great music of Beethoven, Bartók, and Bach.” Prism IV with Bach’s G minor Fugue, Beethoven String Quartet Op. 132 and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 again netted much critical praise: “Imaginative programming and superb quartet playing make this an outstanding album,” The Strad declared. “Each of these works is intricately constructed using time-honoured devices such as fugues, and within that intervallic and motific liaisons which forge cogency and continuity. These are elements that the Danish Quartet palpably cherish.”
Prism V was recorded in Copenhagen, and produced by Manfred Eicher.
CD booklet includes liner notes by Paul Griffiths and a performers’ note from the Danish String Quartet.