The Pristine Empire of ECM Records

On its fiftieth anniversary, the revered jazz and classical label launches a major Beethoven cycle with the Danish String Quartet.

The German record label Edition of Contemporary Music, or ECM, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, first made its name with elegant, atmospheric jazz albums that turned away from the melee of the post-bop avant-garde. Its most famous product, from 1974, was Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert,” which, to its creator’s chagrin, became a mellow soundtrack to innumerable make-out sessions and coffeehouse transactions. ECM also established itself as a purveyor of classical minimalism, with best-selling disks devoted to Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. The label’s austere design aesthetic—block letters, black-and-white photography, sparse notes—was consistent to the point of self-parody. Circa 1999, no sophisticated stereo stand was complete without an ECM CD showing, say, a picture of a collapsed stone wall.

Stock images aside, ECM is one of the greatest labels in the history of recording. Manfred Eicher, who founded ECM and remains its sole proprietor, has forged a syncretic vision in which jazz and classical traditions intelligently intermingle. ECM’s catalogue of some sixteen hundred albums contains abrasive sounds as well as soothing ones, clouds of dissonance alongside shimmering triads. All benefit from a crisply reverberant acoustic in which an instrument’s timbre is nearly as important as the music played on it. Simply put, Eicher’s releases tend to sound better than other people’s. Some of ECM’s best disks were made in league with the Norwegian recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who died earlier this month.

Just as important is Eicher’s knack for sustaining long-term relationships with artists. In the jazz world, to record for ECM was to enter a community of the elect, bridging gaps between freewheeling European sophisticates and veteran American progressives. At the beginning of November, Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted a celebration of ECM, bringing in a remarkable parade of notables. Jack DeJohnette and Wadada Leo Smith, elder statesmen from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, joined such eclectic younger stars as Vijay Iyer, Ethan Iverson, and Craig Taborn. Indeed, too much talent was crowded into one evening. When the unclassifiable Meredith Monk came onstage, to perform “Gotham Lullaby,” from her epochal 1981 record, “Dolmen Music,” I wanted her to keep going indefinitely.

Eicher’s achievement in the classical sphere has equal weight. When, in 1984, he began championing the music of Pärt, he also launched a multi-decade partnership with the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who went on to explore the haunted worlds of Mieczysław Weinberg, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Giya Kancheli. In time, ECM’s house artists set down landmarks not only in new music but also in the core repertory. If I were naming my favorite albums of Bach’s solo-string music, I might begin with Kremer’s 2005 account of the sonatas and partitas. I then would have to choose between Thomas Demenga’s traversal of the cello suites and Kim Kashkashian’s rendition of them on viola. András Schiff has recorded revelatory Schubert on the fortepiano; Carolin Widmann and Dénes Várjon made a ferociously potent disk of the Schumann violin sonatas.

As the decades have gone by, the question of an “ECM aesthetic” has receded. What matters most is Eicher’s relentless commitment to fostering artists he admires. His monumental documentation of Monk’s career may prove to be his proudest legacy. Like the best book editors, theatre directors, and gallery curators, he offers talented people both a stable foundation and a space for independent expression. In a recent interview with Downbeat, Eicher reiterated his simple, deep philosophy: “It is all about curiosity. It began that way and I am still pursuing that. I am always searching for new sounds.”

At first glance, the four young Scandinavians who form the Danish String Quartet—Frederik Øland, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and Asbjørn Nørgaard—seem to be unlikely additions to ECM’s monastic lineup. They are an informal, shaggy-haired lot, resembling an indie-rock band more than a chamber group. During a recent West Coast tour, they took time off to attend a football game at the University of California, Berkeley. In an introductory note for their ECM project “Prism,” which is centered on Beethoven’s late quartets, they describe the works in question as “mind-blowing.” They fall into fluent ECM-speak, though, when they offer the image of “a beam of music . . . split through Beethoven’s prism.”

The Danes are, in fact, musicians of impeccable refinement, and the first two “Prism” releases suggest a major cycle in the making. Each disk sets Beethoven alongside a later composer: “Prism I” pairs the Opus 127 Quartet with Shostakovich’s spectral Fifteenth Quartet; “Prism II” places Opus 130 next to Alfred Schnittke’s fraught Third Quartet. There is nothing novel in pointing out the visionary quality of late Beethoven. Yet the Danes complicate the narrative by including, at the start of each installment, an arrangement of a fugue by Bach, thereby emphasizing not only Beethoven’s premonitions of the future but also his consciousness of the past. Prior ECM releases might have inspired the format: Demenga has linked Bach to contemporary composers, and Kashkashian has blended Schumann with György Kurtág.

Not unexpectedly, the members of the Danish Quartet bring tonal heft and rhythmic vigor to the proceedings. Their Beethoven is no cosmic enigma: you register the physicality of his stomping ostinatos, the off-kilter drive of his dance movements, the playful abruptness of his stylistic transitions. Beethoven practiced polystylism long before Schnittke employed that term: the late quartets juxtapose Bachian counterpoint with Rossinian frivolity. Conventional wisdom holds that players must have decades of experience to do this music justice, but younger ensembles often thrive on its kaleidoscopic, dial-spinning nature.

At the same time, the Danes have no trouble stepping outside worldly realms and into zones of rapt contemplation. The Adagio of Opus 127 is taken at a riskily slow tempo, yet it unfolds in long-breathed lyric arcs. The Cavatina of Opus 130 is steeped in unaffected Old World style, with throaty portamento slides from note to note. The wrenching section marked “beklemmt”—oppressed, anguished—curls inward toward silence, with bows brushing on the strings in whispered gasps. The great hymnal chords that underpin these slow movements are tuned with extraordinary care, delivering a chiaroscuro of resonance.

Earlier this month, the Danes presented a spellbinding live version of “Prism II” at Cal Performances, in Berkeley. They began with Bach’s Fugue in B Minor, from the first book of the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Beethoven may well have had Bach’s fugue subject in mind when he wrote the Grosse Fuge, the original finale of Opus 130. Schnittke, in turn, weaves that theme into his quartet. The Danes, playing with nerve-fraying intensity, created the impression of a super-quartet spanning centuries. In February, they will perform Beethoven’s entire quartet cycle at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Those concerts will be worth hearing, though the “Prism” project would have been more welcome.

How long can ECM go on making records of this calibre? Eicher is seventy-six, and he is still involved in every aspect of his business. His imprimatur retains its power: the only biographical text on the home page of the Danish Quartet’s Web site is “ECM Recording Artists.” Although producers of Eicher’s discernment are rare, a successor might be found. The bigger question is whether record companies remain viable economic enterprises in the age of streaming, which has reduced royalties to a pittance. Consumers show more fealty to apps and media conglomerates than to labels and artists. I’d recommend one of the Danish Quartet’s disks for holiday shopping, but the days of giving music as a gift seem to be drawing to a close.

Published in the print edition of the December 2, 2019, issue, with the headline “A Beam of Music.”

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Danish String Quartet delivers excellence, from Bach and Beethoven to Shostakovich and Schnittke

Danish String Quartet kicks off five-concert series, part of a three-year residency with the La Jolla Music Society

It’s not even 249years after Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth — Dec. 16, 1770 — yet programmatic celebrations of his 250th anniversary have already begun.

Beethoven’s symphonies, sonatas and concertos are heading your way, like it or not. Think there’s already too much Beethoven at concerts? You may want to hibernate for a year or two.

However, there are other ways to observe this milestone besides nothing-but-Beethoven performances, as the Danish String Quartet demonstrated in Baker-Baum Concert Hall this past weekend.

On Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, we heard the first two offerings of their series for the La Jolla Music Society devoted to Beethoven’s last five string quartets. Each concert features a late Beethoven opus, a J.S. Bach work arranged for string quartet, and a later composer’s quartet that demonstrates Beethoven’s and/or Bach’s influence.

Bach’s music was not well known in Beethoven’s time, but a Viennese patron introduced Beethoven to unpublished Bach works. Beethoven admired Bach’s counterpoint; Beethoven synthesized it with his own style in his late works.

For the Danish String Quartet’s “Prism Project” — as they call this series — each concert begins with a Bach fugue. On their first two “Prism Project” CDs, the group programmed Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15 in E-Flat Minor, Opus 144, and Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 following Bach, but for this weekend’s concerts, they chose to follow Bach with Beethoven, leaving the second half for Shostakovich or Schnittke.

Beethoven’s absorption and transformation of Bach’s style is nowhere more evident in his string quartets than in the “Grosse Fuge” (Great Fugue), which originally concluded the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130. On their second “Prism Project” recording (and in concert), the Danish Quartet opted for the “Grosse Fuge” ending, rather than the substitute last movement which Beethoven wrote at his publisher’s request. (Some groups play the substitute, some play both.)

Schnittke’s Third String Quartet uses a theme based on the main theme of the “Grosse Fuge.” It made more programmatic sense to hear Schnittke after Beethoven, since it allowed us to compare Schnittke’s use of the motive, in contrast to Beethoven’s.

Likewise, shuffling the program order Friday evening so that Shostakovich’s bleak String Quartet No. 15 inhabited the entire second half prevented Beethoven’s exuberant String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Opus 127, from wiping out Shostakovich’s thinly textured, forlorn work.

It’s easy to hear Shostakovich’s quartet, agonizingly composed during his last year before succumbing to cancer, as his personal musing on his impending death. Every movement is an Adagio and in the same key of E-flat Minor, a suffocating structure that exhausts listeners. For those willing to give in to Shostakovich’s slow journey, the results can be profound.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 is a virtuosic remix in the styles of Orlando Lassus, late Romantic composers, and late 20th-century techniques. At first, these very different languages are simply juxtaposed, but over the course of the work, they interpenetrate to become a new idiom presided over by Schnittke.

The Danish String Quartet played with conviction and passion. Their canny “Prism Project” does a great service representing Beethoven and his refractions in the music of subsequent composers like Shostakovich and Schnittke.

Next weekend’s program will bring Mendelssohn, Bartok and Webern into focus through Beethoven and Bach. Chamber music fans should not miss these performances.

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A Prismatic Program from the Danish String Quartet

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.


  • 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

November 7, 2019; Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington, Seattle.

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Danish String Quartet Keeps Its Perfect Balance

It’s not easy for a quartet to forge a distinctive sound and approach while playing masterworks that many other professional quartets play well. But the Danish String Quartet is one of the groups that has managed it, and you could hear it right from the start of Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet, the centerpiece of their program for Cal Performances at Hertz Hall in Berkeley on Sunday.

Op. 130 (the Quartet No. 13 in B-flat) has enough personality (or weirdness, depending on how you look at it), to let a quartet fly its freak flag, especially when you append the “Grosse Fuge” (Great fugue), its original finale, which extends the piece to about 45 minutes in performance. That isn’t really the Danish quartet’s way: they make the shifts in emotional tone, key, dynamics, and tempo seem natural, if not smooth. And the reason is a remarkable unanimity in sound and approach that, even when the music is straining to the breaking point, preserves tonal balance and a through line.

In the brief unison octaves at the outset, and again at the beginning of the fugue movement, the quartet produced a perfect encapsulation of what makes them distinctive. Whether at pianissimo (the opening) or fortissimo (in the fugue), the beauty and presence of the sound lifted off the strings without effort and filled the hall. There’s plenty of virtuosity needed to make this quartet come off, but there was no point at which the Danish String Quartet sound seemed strained or unconnected to what had come before. The tempo/mood changes of the first movement happened without fuss and the counterpoint of the Andante con moto movement was so subtly managed you could barely notice the handoffs.

Now you could say, as Larry Rothe does in the program notes, that the musical world has caught up to Beethoven and the disruptions that so bothered the initial audiences for this piece are just part and parcel of our musical environment and the concert pieces that come out of it. But this quartet’s ability to ride the storm and keep their hands steady on the tiller are part of what made this particular interpretation so singular. The magic of subsuming all of the parts of the piece into a cohesive whole isn’t something you always hear in performance but it’s clear that Beethoven, in the brief scherzo, the gorgeous cavatina, and the vibrant German dance, was not trying to make the whole piece “hard” or intellectual.

The DSQ built the concert around Op. 130, starting off with a Bach fugue, arranged from the Well-Tempered Clavier, a source of Beethoven’s late interest in fugue, and ending with Alfred Schnittke’s highly contrastive String Quartet No. 3, which begins with a phrase from Orlando de Lasso’s Stabat Mater and a short quotation of the Grosse Fuge theme (as well as Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical moniker DSCH [D–E-flat–C–B], which is the Grosse Fuge’s G–G-sharp–F–E transposed up a fifth). Schnittke’s witty and brilliant synthesis of these materials is only the beginning for a quartet that rivals Beethoven’s in finding unity in opposites.

And again, it was the DSQ’s way of diving into these oppositions without letting them affect their overall sound that made it so easy to hear this piece. It was like a brilliant math teacher unspooling a difficult concept and making it comprehensible. You didn’t see the work that went into the performance, yet the Danish String Quartet made the work present and digestible. Sure, there’s a waltz that turns into a scherzo in the second movement, while still quoting Lasso. Why not?

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A Broad Sphere of Light

Danish String Quartet with the Danish National Girls’ Choir

At a moment when it seems as though the musical world is flush with extraordinary string quartets, the Danish String Quartet still manages to stand out. After achieving worldwide crossover success with the chart-topping Last Leaf, an album of Danish folk music they released in 2017, it would be understandable if this group of hip and handsome thirtysomethings rested on their musical laurels and coasted through a career playing their own music to sold-out crowds, but that’s not what they are about. Instead, they launched into an ultra-rigorous recorded exploration of Beethoven’s late string quartets on the venerable ECM label. The results have blown away the critical community, particularly the most recent disk, Prism II, which contains their interpretation of the most famous Beethoven quartet of all, the No. 13 Op. 130/133, complete with its notorious Grosse Fuge.

Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures, we have had multiple opportunities to witness the growth and range of this organization, but what’s coming this time around makes even last season’s intense two-night stand look like a casual affair. On Tuesday, November 12, the four gentlemen will be joined on the Granada Theatre stage by the Danish National Girls’ Choir. Fifty young women strong, and armed with its own highly sophisticated repertoire, this powerhouse of a choir has been around in one form or another since 1938, thanks to the patronage of the Danish National Radio. Hot off a brilliant collaboration with American composer David Lang, the girls are only performing this unique collaboration one time in the United States, and it is happening right here. The next night, Wednesday, November 13, the DSQ returns to Campbell Hall for a recital that will include Beethoven’s final string quartet, the Op. 132.

The Independent exchanged emails with DSQ’s violist, Asbjørn Nørgaard, who had this to say about the events.

How did you begin working with the choir?  A couple of years ago, we were invited to perform with the Danish National Girls’ Choir for their traditional summer concert. We didn’t know exactly what to expect. I think our idea of a girls’ choir was quite traditional: polite girls with good posture, singing beautifully. But what we saw at that concert was quite different. They presented an ambitious and very exciting concert and really showed us what a choir can be.

Last year, we were Ensemble in Residence at the Danish Radio, and we used the opportunity to create a concert together with the Danish National Girls’ Choir that almost worked as a pilot for the concert we will present in Santa Barbara.

The combination of a string quartet with a 50-person choir is not common. How did you develop the program?  The program was developed as a continuation of a concert we did together in Copenhagen in 2018. The program moves from one single dark point into a broad sphere of light. All of it will be played in one musical flow where the transitions are worked out harmonically. There is maybe not a grand intellectual theme that unifies everything, but we want to show that beauty and the beast can and should live side by side. If you put a string quartet on a stage, the default sound is quite beautiful. Then add 50 singing girls, and it is like putting sugar on an ice cream. So we have worked a lot to present a program that shows some darker sides. A girls’ choir can sound like angels, but they can also be as scary as the twins in Kubrick’s The Shining.

What about the late Beethoven string quartets strikes you as most interesting now that you are further along with the Prism project?  Beethoven is often put up on a very high pedestal. He is worshiped like a god, and his pieces are treated as Moses’ Ten Commandments. But the more we work on this music, the more it feels obvious to us that this is not big, “institutional” music; this is not perfect music. The great, late Beethoven string quartets are long in duration and have their “crazy” moments, but they are special because they are small, imperfect and human.

What else would you like people to know about this season for the group?  2020 is a big Beethoven worldwide celebration. We will do our part with a couple of regular cycles in addition to presenting our Prism programs. It is lots of fun, and for a string quartet it can’t get better than this: It is a year of musical Mount Everests. But as dads of an ever-growing horde of babies and toddlers, we know that real life can entail other types of mountains that we also need to deal with while working on our Beethoven. Maybe that is why we keep returning to the human nature of his music this year? —Charles Donelan

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Great Danes make some revelatory connections

Julian Haylock finds that all roads lead to Beethoven in the Danish Quartet’s latest imaginative programme

As Griffiths describes eloquently in his exemplary booklet annotations, there are profound familiar connections here between the contrapuntal intensity of Bach´s B minor Fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (heard here in an inspired arrangement by Beethoven’s friend, Emmanuel Aloys Förster), Beethovens’s ‘Grosse Fuge’ (presented, as originally intended, as the finale of the Op. 130 Quartet) and Schnittke’s Third Quartet. The quartet refers overtly to the ‘Grosse Fuge’ as the music’s virtual progenitor and (almost subliminally) to the Bach fugue.

Facinating, in this second of the Danish Quartet’s Prism series based around Beethoven’s late quartets, they trace the prismatic connections between the three pieces in the order Bach-Schnittke-Beethoven, creating a revelatory connected soundscape in which (even after the agonised hectoring if the Schnittke) Beethoven’s super-compressed introspection feels even more (at times wildly) unsettling than usual.

It’s little wonder that Beethoven decided to hide himself away at a local tavern during an early private performance of his quartet with it´s ‘Grosse Fuge’, afraid that no one would understand it: he was right! Here, though, the Danes make sense of this work while bringing it to life. They create the haunting impression of the ‘Alla danza tedesca’ having already been playing for some time before we actually hear it, yet it is the ‘Grosse Fuge’ that perhaps inspires the most insightful playing if all, with vibrato kept to an intonation-clarifyring minimum and passages of dotted-rhythm thrusting delivered with a rapier-like precision, offet by oases of profound calm.


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