“Each album presents a particular Bach fugue that is connected to a late Beethoven quartet that is in turn connected to a quartet by a later master. A beam of music is split through Beethoven’s prism.”

That’s part of the reasoning the Danish String Quartet – Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (violins), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola) and Frederik Schøyen Sjölin (cello) – give for embarking on their five-volume and live concert series PRISM project, which takes Beethoven’s last five string quartets and shows how it relates both to a Bach fugue (often in the same key) and a post-Beethoven string quartet.

Danish String Quartet

As the Quartet’s note to this third and latest volume in the series also explains, Beethoven was “obsessed” with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier during his last years, and “derived many of the melodic motifs in his five late quartets” from it.

Prism I features Beethoven’s String Quartet No 12, Op. 127 in E Flat, a Bach fugue in the same key and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 15 in E Flat Minor. Prism II comprises Beethoven’s String Quartet No 13, Op. 130, another Bach fugue (B Flat Minor) and Schnittke’s String Quartet No 3.

Prism III brings us to Beethoven’s String Quartet No 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131, which the Danish String Quartet follow with Bartók’s String Quartet No 1 from 1909 and Bach’s Fugue in C Sharp Minor BWV849 from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, arranged by Viennese composer Emanuel Aloys Förster (1748-1823).

One can’t help but think the image of a prism refracting light on the otherwise pitch-black album cover Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) would have suited this project very well. Because it’s about illumination, in the sense of providing opportunities for us to make connections, whether historical, theoretical or intuitive, between three seemingly wildly disparate works for string quartet (the Bach fugues in arrangement, of course; Paul Griffiths in his thoughtful contribution to the booklet literature notes some necessary over-dubbing by the viola part for the 5-voice fugue).

It’s also about awakening our consciousness to innovation within tradition, of which Beethoven’s extensive use of the fugue is but one example. But the Danish String Quartet don’t oversell such features, here allowing the first-movement fugue in the Beethoven to unfold like carefully partitioned mist, creating just the right sense of mystery and suspense for the following movements – whether galumphing, galloping, searingly serioso or spinning kaleidoscopically through a series of variations – to be heard with fresh ears and open heart.

The Bartók not only benefits from this superb opening gambit in the sense of “make it new”; also revealed is a passionate intensity and perhaps bitterness which is Beethovian in spirit.  By the time we get to Bach’s sublime C Sharp Minor fugue – which this listener, and presumably most of you, will be used to hearing on piano, or possibly harpsichord – we’re in a different headspace, and hear in the unfurling of subjects and countersubjects, the dense polyphony and dramatic stretti, not just the ghost of a Renaissance ricercar but a prefiguration of Beethoven’s genius.

Fanciful, maybe; but it’s that kind of imaginative cohabitation which playing of the calibre of the Danish String Quartet’s makes possible.

Listen on Apple Music

Title: Prism III
Works: String Quartets by Beethoven, Bartók, JS Bach
Performers: Danish String Quartet
Label: ECM 4855417

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