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Recording of the Month

This is the first in a series of releases by the Danish String Quartet under the title ‘Prism’, each of which will present one of Beethoven’s late string quartets alongside a related fugue by J.S. Bach and another linked work from the quartet literature. Prism I is built around the key of E-flat and the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, Op. 127 in E-flat Major. Bach’s Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 876 was one of five from the Well-Tempered Clavier that Mozart transcribed for string quartet, and both Mozart and Beethoven shared a deep admiration of Bach. Dmitri Shostakovich’s final string quartet, No. 15 in E-flat minor, a hauntingly enigmatic set of six adagios that can trace its ancestral line back to Beethoven’s late quartet slow movements, including the Adagio, mon non troppo e molto cantabile of his Op. 127.

Poise, elegant restraint and an exacting adherence to the scores are the essence of this superb recording. Bach’s Fugue is played with appropriate reserve as a prelude to the Shostakovich. It could easily be more playful, but that’s not what this programme is about. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15 is a serious prospect, and the Danish Quartet plays with hardly any vibrato, the long opening Elegy a moment in time suspended to a kind of infinity. Lack of vibrato should not be confused with a lack of expression here however. This playing has a purity that takes us deeply into Shostakovich’s melancholy mood, and the subtle touches of vibrato we are given heighten this effect while delivering the essence of the music rather than showcasing the players. Those razor-like crescendo notes in the Serenade are almost entirely consistent between the players, the drama present and oppressive, but always supremely in control. Other quartets take us closer to what sounds like a breaking point, but there by no means a shortage of dynamic range or drama here. Six slow movements might seem a daunting prospect, but there is lightness and transparency to be found here as well; the Danish players making the Nocturne into an atmospheric and ghostly space only just abandoned by dancers whose delicately formal movements made the cobwebs shift almost imperceptibly. The harder-hitting Funeral March has plenty of passion in the playing in this recording, though once again restraint in the vibrato keeps us in balance, the dynamics being ‘real’ rather than ‘projected’ or perceived as a side-effect of more frenetic finger-work. The final Epilogue opens frenetically enough, but the underlying momentum becomes a memory, poignant and ephemeral, and ultimately subsumed by a mood similar to the opening.

The transitions between all of these seemingly disparate works are surprising ear-openers. The related keys help of course, but there’s an undeniable musical narrative going on here and a freshness of context that adds to the sheer quality of the performances. I won’t go on at length about this recording of Beethoven’s Op. 127. This reminds me of that timeless recording the Busch Quartet made way back in the 1930s and has remained a benchmark ever since (review). The timings for the first two movements are as close as makes no difference, and while the Danish Quartet is a tad broader in the Scherzo they still manage to keep that high-tensile sense of suppressed drama the music needs. That slow second movement is to where the attention is most drawn, and the Danish Quartet is as sublime and timeless as you could wish for. There is enough momentum to prevent things falling apart, but Beethoven’s expansion of his material as far as it can go and beyond is as well played here as I think I’ve ever heard on a recording. The Busch Quartet was willing to stretch things a little further in the first few pages than the Danish Quartet, which is perhaps marginally more ‘straight’, but still plumbing the depths and singing with hypnotic clarity from Beethoven’s other-world.

There are of course comparisons to be had with this repertoire, but this recording is a unified package in its own right. The Brodsky Quartet presents a more heart-on-sleeve image of the Shostakovich quartet in their live recording (review), but this is part of the character of their whole set. The Fitzwilliam Quartet on Decca with its working connection with the composer and its 1970s authentic flavour will always have a unique place, but even with these aspects my preference in this work would now lean towards the Danish Quartet for its impeccable balance and coherence of emotional arc through the whole piece. When it comes to the Beethoven I picked out the Borodin Quartet on Chandos (review) more because the set was handy rather than it being an ideal reference. This is a good enough performance, but not quite as profound or keenly accurate as that from the Danish Quartet. There are of course plenty of others around, but with an intriguing and impressively effective concept and such superlative performances this Prism series looks like becoming one every string quartet collector should covet.

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