Though recorded five months earlier, this disc closely resembles a concert the Danish Quartet gave in October, marking the beginning of Thomas Adès’s Sonning Prize residency in Copenhagen. Out goes the highly reactive performance of Adès’s Piano Quintet (with the composer on keys) and in comes Per Nørgård’s little Quartetto breve, which makes a useful central pivot in a mirror-like programme where Adès’s Arcadiana reflects Abrahamsen’s 10 Preludes and vice versa.
Both the longer pieces present lessons in how to be disciplined with your material: Adès and Abrahamsen set themselves rigorous tasks and fulfil them as simply and as briefly as possible (which doesn’t mean the results are either simple or brief). Arcadiana looks at the same material as if through seven different twists of a kaleidoscope. In 10 Preludes, each movement looks backwards to its predecessor and forwards to its successor, arriving at a C major Classical pastiche that ‘sorts out the loose ends’ (Abrahamsen).
10 Preludes is something of a petri dish, a touchstone for the composer himself who has returned to it for technical and thematic inspiration since 1973. Its ‘étude’ footing (in a materialistic sense) shows, but the music is both energetic and extremely careful; the ninth prelude operates almost entirely on a unison but winds up among the most complex and fascinating.
I have reservations about Arcadiana, only because it shows how far Adès has come (since 1993) when viewed against a more recent masterpiece such as In Seven Days, which in a sense has the same goal but achieves more with less. Per Nørgård doesn’t look at the same object multiple times in his Quartetto breve; instead his piece from 1952 foreshadows his tapping of that Sibelian meta-flow which would deliver such powerful symphonies some years later. He explores a bunch of varied textures and themes along the way, but each arrives on its own terms. The Danish Quartet are more sepia-toned in Arcadiana than the Calder Quartet on their recent Signum recording, and the approach works. Elsewhere, the Danish are remarkable, as ever – capable of intense blend, extreme dynamic variation (in which they seem glued together), perfect intonation even on harmonics, and constant vitality and flow.Andrew Mellor