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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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