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Bach’s music was not well known in Beethoven’s time, but a Viennese patron introduced Beethoven to unpublished Bach works.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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