Danish String Quartet

Prism II: Beethoven, Schnittke, Bach

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This release by the Danish String Quartet is part of a five-album series titled "Prism," each of which will apparently include three works: an arrangement of a Bach fugue for string quartet, one of Beethoven's five late quartets, and a 20th century work that somehow lies in the shadow of both, or, to use the quartet's own words, "a beam of music is split through Beethoven's prism." In this case, the program is unusually coherent, with the String Quartet No. 3 of Alfred Schnittke engaging itself directly with the Beethoven String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130, and Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, here played as the finale of the String Quartet No. 13 as Beethoven originally conceived the work. Logically, the Beethoven should go in the middle, but after you hear the Danish String Quartet's blistering performance of the String Quartet No. 13, you'll agree that it would be an impossible act to follow. The group gets just how radical this quartet was, especially with the Grosse Fuge in place, as sharp contrasts grow throughout the work and explode in the unthinkably intense fugue. The quartet takes the first movements of the six-movement work very rapidly, with the lighter melodic passages seeming like passing thoughts, takes a deep pause with the Cavatina slow movement, and then plunges into the fugue at top power. They are aided by magnificent engineering work from ECM, working on the Reitstadel Neumarkt, a riding stadium with famed acoustics. The Schnittke quartet is a fascinating work in itself, quoting the Beethoven extensively and exploring its sharp contrasts (sample the Agitato middle movement). One awaits the rest of the Danish String Quartet's series breathlessly, but it's possible that this volume, with a Beethoven performance for the ages, will tower over the rest. A bonus is a set of notes by the great Paul Griffiths, writing mostly for ECM these days.

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