The penultimate volume in the Danish String Quartet’s Prism series linking Bach fugues with string quartets by Beethoven and later composers boasts revelatory playing, finessed and fierce, that penetrates to the bone, fibre and heart of the protean Lutheran’s successors’ music. Where previous instalments highlighted 20th-century quartets by Bartók, Schnittke and Shostakovich, here the focus shifts backwards in time to Mendelssohn.

Danish String Quartet

The jumping-off point is the G Minor “Little Fugue” (BWV861) from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, whom Beethoven admired enough to recommend students to him. In truth, it’s a workmanlike arrangement, but one whose subdued, unsettled temperament is realised by the Danish foursome with a duly adroit and spryly voiced exactitude that prepares the ground for what is to follow.

That work’s leading four-note motif, transposed down a seventh for the cello, provides the kernel (intentional or not) for the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No 15 in A Minor (Op.132). The catalogue is well stocked with recommendable recordings of this venerable late work, to which can be added this candid, soul-bearing reading.

Noticeable from the off, in the sprung, buoyant opening where dark undercurrents pull away from surface splendour, is the alert, precisely proportioned sense of reciprocity in the Danish quartet’s playing. In Beethoven’s chamber music, as in life, the onus is on listening before responding. That attitude reaps considerable rewards here in the finely balanced interplay between all four voices that registers in dazzling contrapuntal complexity, in daringly delineated contrasts and in often movingly expressive intimacy.

That latter quality distinguishes the major-key second movement, realised with faultless balance, the transcendental trio beautifully described. But it is in the third, Molto adagio, movement with its becoming, altogether affecting slow-motion keening, that the Danish String Quartet lock eloquent antlers with the Alban Berg Quartet’s benchmark live recording (EMI Classics). As hushed as it is intense, it is the precision of the playing here, in tempo, temperament and exquisite detailing that so compels.

The miniature fourth movement deports itself with an almost prim sense of propriety, selflessly serving as the conduit between what has been and what is to follow, deftly seeding the ground for the surging Allegro appassionato finale. Initially sketched as the conclusion to the Ninth Symphony (subsequently abandoned for its now indelible choral ending), it is an exultant exercise in that most Beethovenian of traits: resolution. And is superbly realised here.

Also cast in A Minor, the 18-year-old Mendelssohn’s ardently articulate Second String Quartet was composed in homage a mere matter of months after Beethoven’s death in 1826. Unabashedly indebted to the classical titan’s Op. 132 and its immediate quartet sibling, No 16 (Op. 135), it also anticipates fast-emerging romanticism. The Danish String Quartet occupy this Janus-faced cusp with relishable fire and finesse to imbue a youthful outpouring with all the considered maturity it merits.

Recorded sound in the 14th-century Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Bavaria is exemplary. The booklet includes characteristically erudite, self-recommending, notes by Paul Griffiths and the Danish String Quartet. 

Available on Apple Music

Composers: Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn
Works: String Quartets
Performers: Danish String Quartet
Label: ECM 2564

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