Save for a handful of renegades and visionaries, classical musicians tend to put fidelity to the score close to the top of their priorities. That comes with certain constraints—especially when playing works like Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets, which have been analyzed, performed, and reconsidered over and over again during the course of the past 200 years. So it’s refreshing to discover that the young musicians of the Danish String Quartet have a new way of looking at this repertoire.
The group’s 2018 release, PRISM I, the first in a projected series of five, contrasts Beethoven’s Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major with a work that inspired it and a work that was, in turn, inspired by it: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in E-flat Major and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor, respectively. The clarity of the DSQ’s playing illuminates the subtle links between the pieces. As violist Asbjørn Nørgaard tells the Straight from a California residency, the record is programmed so as to spark an intuitive grasp of why this music matters.
“The idea came spontaneously when I was reading [Lewis] Lockwood’s brilliant Beethoven biography,” Nørgaard explains. “In the chapters about the last phase of Beethoven’s life, he writes about Beethoven’s lifelong fascination with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; how he was obsessed with these Bach fugues and how he used them in various ways when composing his last five string quartets. At this point in time we had recorded lots of Danish music, contemporary music, and some folk music, so we felt we were ready to tackle some of the cornerstones of the standard string quartet repertoire. But at the same time, we—like many young musicians, I suppose—felt a little bit bored with the idea of simply adding yet another recording of familiar repertoire to the pile of wonderful recordings. So the idea of framing the late Beethoven quartets in a slightly different way was very attractive to us.
“Musicology is important and all, but at the end of the day, we wanted to create a project that would make sense on an intuitive level.”
While the PRISM recordings are built around works from late in Beethoven’s career, the Danish String Quartet won’t be playing those pieces in its upcoming Vancouver Recital Society concert. Instead, its members will focus on Beethoven’s fourth and 10th quartets—and on music from the Nordic countries. Nørgaard notes that the DSQ’s recent emphasis on the complex later quartets has given all four musicians a great appreciation for the private side of Beethoven’s work as a whole, and those are qualities they’ll take into their remarkably elegant interpretations of folk tunes from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
“People often assume that because we play traditional Nordic folk music, we also play classical music as if we were wearing clogs,” he says. “But when we present a set of traditional tunes, we have to show the audience why we are bothering to play this music. And I think this position is one we should also be in when we perform the classical masters. We should never take music for granted, even Mozart and those guys.”
The Vancouver Recital Society presents the Danish String Quartet at the Vancouver Playhouse at 3 p.m. on Sunday (February 24).