Danish String Quartet – Prism IV: Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn – ECM New Series

by | Aug 13, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Danish String Quartet – BACH (arr. Forster): Fugue in G Minor; BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132; MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13 – ECM New Series 2564 485 7305 (4/28/22) 79:46 [Distr. by Universal] *****:

This disc, recorded September 2018 as “Prism IV,” means to offer a unified sense of purpose in the three works presented, beginning with Bach’s G Minor Fugue from WTC I in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Forster (1748-1823) for string quartet.  Bach offers what amounts to a grund-gestalt, a floor plan, for the succeeding compositions by Beethoven and Mendelssohn: The first four notes, martial in character, rising a half step and the falling a minor sixth and returning, only to descend another half step, set a stark, almost bleak tone, with only a few bars of ensemble for the four instruments. When the opening notes are inverted and the cello line transposed down a seventh, the germ of Beethoven’s late quartet of 1825 appears.  Its appearance in concert in 1826 singularly astonished the young Felix Mendelssohn into writing a response, no less fueled by Beethoven’s last published quartet, the F Major, Op. 135.  That work’s finale, posing in music the rhetorical question Muss es sein? compelled Mendelssohn to invoke his own intervals for Ist es wahr? (from his own poem Frage) for the A Major section of his opening Adagio.  

The Danish Quartet well appreciates the legacy Bach bequeaths Beethoven and Mendelssohn, the capacity to see in fragments a more expansive cosmology, the potentiality for a transcendent understanding. The chromatic instability in Bach proves equally resonant in the opening four notes in Beethoven, Assai sostenuto, shadowy voices, starting with the cello, yearning for identity and closure. Violin one unleashes a torrent of swirling notes that the other voices, often in counterpoint, assume as the main theme of the Allegro. 

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

All formal pedantry aside, the Op. 132 addresses the ageless problem of mortal strife and its meaningful resolution. The distractions and disorders that ensue in the course of this odyssey, by virtue of a synoptic perspective, may be integrated into a meaning that justifies the trials. Such has been the experience of the great spiritual journeys in Dante, Shakespeare, Joyce, Bach, and Beethoven. In a stressful sonata form, the music evolves, courtesy of the second violin’s initiation of the secondary theme, in the style of a folk tune, here set in F Major. The various discords and acerbic antiphons point to the jarring harmonies of the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. The four-note pattern, having become detached, blends in with the soaring aspects of the first violin and the cello’s answer, and the recapitulation has become fraught with a decisive tension en route to its key center in A, minor and major.

Much of the tenor of movement one recurs at the opening of the second movement, Allegro ma non tanto, up a half step and inverted, and then rising a major third. Much of the dance-like, emotional tenor of the music has debts to Mozart’s A Major Quartet, K. 464, which Beethoven knew well. The unison subject takes on irregular metrics that the middle section tries to console. The soul of simplicity, a folk dance in drone style, a musette played by the violins with drone bass accompaniment. The viola and cello, however, break the mood with threats.The reprised musette and da capo in A Major restore order, but the ominous sense of menace still hovers. 

The Danes now confront one of Beethoven’s towering achievements, the third movement hymn, Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydische Tonart, a pious Song of Praise (for restored health after a prolonged illness) in the Lydian mode, which is the F Major scale with a raised fourth degree on B; and, in the context of sotto voce entries in canon, suggests an antique sound from a Renaissance consort. Beethoven marks a section Neue Kraft fuehlend, with renewed strength, moving to D Major, in which a sigh a relief becomes palpable. Another, new episode, Mit innigster Empfindung, with inward expressiveness, exalts this canonic music to the level of spiritual bliss, a controlled stillness. Beethoven returns to the diurnal world by a martial jolt, the brief, earth-bound, fourth movement, Alla Marcia, assai vivace, rendered here by the Danes in nervous playfulness. To have maintained the requisite tension of this prolonged orison and its sudden transition testifies to grand discipline of the Danish players. 

We now come to the first violin’s recitative, nervous tremolos beneath, reminiscent of the Ninth Symphony last movement, except the music here provides more anxiety. The fifth movement’s main theme is lyrical enough, but the dance metrics prove unsettling, and the emotional tenor vibrates with yearning. Rather than finding calm, this Allegro appassionato becomes more agitated, even feverish, and the cello reacts by subsuming the violins in high register in a cry of anguish. Only by degrees does the hard-won resolution in A Major occur, Beethoven’s finally casting all adversity aside to proclaim a spiritual victory of a most personal kind.

The eighteen-year-old Mendelssohn had fallen under the spell of both Beethoven and Bach, so to have created his remarkable A Minor String Quartet, Op. 13 marks a decisive moment of emancipation, in spite of any influences. The Beethoven models derive from the Op. 95 F Minor Quartet and the A Minor, Op. 132. Yet the music here remains entirely original, not permitting any direct quotation. Yes, the opening of the Adagio – Allegro vivace opens slowly, like Op. 132, and then explodes in 16ths outward. Calm and turbulence, as in Beethoven, wrestle for emotional hegemony. Even Beethoven’s operatic gambit, the violin recitative, occurs in the opening of the last movement, Presto – Adagio non tanto. The center of Mendelssohn’s slow movement, Adagio non tanto, imitates the “Serioso” Quartet of Beethoven, with a sad tune in the viola that the other instruments absorb polyphonically into a fugue whose intense complexity bespeaks the rigors of Bach studies.

Portrait Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn had composed a song, Frage (Question), and its three-word “Is it true?” sets the tone of anxious uncertainty that sustains much of this work until its happy fulfillment in the last movement. The opening question stalls the introduction in A Major, the unison sound interrupted by the viola. There, the music assumes the minor mode by way of Beethoven’s driving dotted rhythm in Bach’s counterpoint, with a touch of Beethoven’s Op. 133. Mendelssohn moves into E Minor for two themes prior to the development section. This music has become stormy in the most obvious declaration of sturm und drang sentiments. The violin takes us operatically to a high B while the cello and viola resonate most distinctly in the bass. The last pages from the Danish String Quartet bristle with an energy most alarming. 

The impulse to cyclic form invades the second movement, Adagio non tanto, whose fugal motif derives from movement one, here, too, set in F Major but without Beethoven’s Lydian color. For contrast, Mendelssohn opts for polyphonic expression in a slow fugue. The first violin, over a throbbing accompaniment, breaks out in search of freedom, but the severity of the occasion dominates. The parallels to Beethoven’s “Holy Song of Thanks” seem blatant, but Mendelssohn’s vision, that of an adolescent, does not aim for celestial comprehension. The finale of the Mendelssohn finds consolation in the passing of a romantic crisis: “Is it true. . .you wait for me constantly by the vine-covered wall?”  

Mendelssohn opts for a march, A Minor, in his ternary third movement, Intermezzo – Allegretto con moto – Allegro di molto. Quicksilver polyphony, especially from the viola and second violin, ripples across the cosmos reminiscent of the fairy music for Shakespeare. Illusions of eternity and certainty flutter away, as such stuff as dreams are made on. With the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth in mind, the Presto bursts forth with a fierce tremolando in unison and the first violin’s passionate recitative that recurs at several points in the procession. Mendelssohn, too, reminds us of earlier themes, only to discard them, opting for a temporary gallop. Again, fugal elements evolve, a multi-tongued answer to the query, “Is it true?” The “symphonic” resonance the Danish String Quartet achieves comes to us courtesy of Tonmeister Markus Heiland. “What I feel, only she grasps – she, who feels with me and remains ever faithful to me,” declares Mendelssohn’s poem. Isn’t this a recycling of Goethe’s Eternal-Feminine from Faust? Whatever the metaphorical reference, the final pages of the A Minor Quartet, as rendered by these Danes, finds a consummation devoutly to be wished.

—Gary Lemco  

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