Prism I (Danish Quartet)
Air from another planet: when the Danish String Quartet first encountered late Beethoven it felt to them (as they explain in the booklet) ‘as if it had fallen down from outer space onto our music stands’. This new release is an attempt to recapture that sense of strangeness, the idea being to use Beethoven as a ‘prism’ through which to revisit earlier and later music. Here, the Quartet Op 127 refracts a Bach fugue and Shostakovich’s Quartet No 15, with the tonality of E flat as the common element.
The effect, on listening straight through, is unexpected. The Bach serves as a brief prelude, and the Shostakovich follows with very little break. The DSQ’s pure, transparent playing immediately lifts the sense of static, oppressive fatality that can (some might say, should) hang over this work. It’s certainly not that the group’s playing lacks commitment: the strange, almost savage snarls that end their crescendos at the start of the second-movement Serenade are deeply unsettling. But there’s definitely a sense of movement, indeed song, in even the slowest music. The ending isn’t so much a fade into extinction as a question left hanging – to be answered by the opening chords of the Beethoven: jagged, assertive and destabilising.
It feels like a controlled discharge of accumulated emotional energy, and while the playing is exquisitely refined (listen to the sudden, luminous change in texture at 5'00" in the finale), this performance never loses its sense of rhythmic danger. These aren’t warm interpretations; they repel as readily as they attract. But they’re thought-provoking, and often startlingly beautiful. And anyway, perhaps one shouldn’t draw too close to this music. Didn’t Beethoven say ‘I’m speaking to my God’?