The three Danes and a Norwegian who play together as the Danish String Quartet have always had a charming modesty to them. But it was nevertheless a bit of a surprise, when their first studio recording of late Beethoven came out in the initial installment of “Prism,” a series exploring that composer and artistic lineages, to find them writing of themselves as “still a group of boys.”
The Danish, who return to Zankel Hall on Thursday to offer the third part of “Doppelgänger,” their project pairing Schubert with new commissions, have never really approached Beethoven’s formidable last works in their genre like children, after all. They were already renowned as one of the major string quartets by the time they recorded Op. 127 in 2016, when the youngest among them was still 32, and they had built their reputation in large part on their preternatural maturity — a sense of proportion, a slight reserve, a certain inexplicable wisdom — in those scores, which can mystify far more senior musicians.
As they tell it now, though, they had barely gotten going. Op. 127 was the focal point of “Prism I,” the first of five recordings on the ECM label treating the late Beethoven quartets not as the alien, anomalous masterpieces they often appear, but as part of musical history, on the one hand influenced by Bach, who is represented on each release by a transcribed fugue, and on the other influencing later successors, here Mendelssohn, Webern, Bartok, Shostakovich and Schnittke.
“Prism V” came out earlier this month, and it completes a series that has come to mean more to the quartet than they might initially have expected. The eldest of the “boys” has now passed 40: The broad chords they played with such rich allure at the beginning of Op. 127, they write in the note for their most recent release, turned out not only to be “the entry gate to the promised lands of the late Beethoven quartets,” but “the exit door from our life as a young string quartet.”
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What a prospect a “fully-fledged” Danish String Quartet, as they describe themselves now, will be, for these releases must qualify as some of the most essential listening of the past decade. No recording could quite capture what makes the Danish so special in concert, could make indelible the fleeting aura of rapt, intense concentration that settles in a hall when they are at their best. But the five “Prism” releases come close, documenting the unique potency of a quartet that may not be the most technically imposing around, nor be the most radical in repertoire, but which excels at being itself.
All the elements of the Danish style are here to behold, first among them their particular sound. Part of the intrigue when listening to string quartets comes in hearing how four audibly separate voices convene in music: how they blend together or scrape against one another, or how one rather than the others drives an argument forward. But the Danish play as if they have abandoned their individual personalities entirely to serve the collective — as if they were joined on a single instrument, armed with four bows.
For the three Danes who met as not-yet-teenagers — the violinists Frederik Oland and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and the violist Asbjorn Norgaard — and the Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin, who joined them in their 20s, music has long been an act of friendship. They share it naturally, as equals. Listen to any of the Bach fugues on the “Prism” releases, and you find that few, if any, of the thematic entries are underlined or even pointed out. Even when they adopt the bare tone they favor in Bach, they adjust their balances to welcome a new line, a new thought, with exquisite, barely perceptible ease.
You get the sense in these recordings that every bar of music has been as carefully considered as it should be, that the minutest aspect of each note has been discussed; the control of sonority and articulation on show is absolute, even as the range of both is vast.
There are downsides to the Danish approach, sensible as a whole yet bold in details. Their patience pays dividends in the long slow movements of Op. 127 and Op. 132, but becomes a tad staid in the drawn-out variations of Op. 131. Theirs is not a Beethoven of struggle, of strife; if they allow rough edges to creep into the blistering dissonance of the Grosse Fuge, they hardly threaten the general air of composure. The most violent playing across the series, oddly, comes in the first movement of Mendelssohn’s A minor quartet on “Prism II,” as a young disciple rages at a master’s death.
For the most part, the Danish impose themselves as indirectly as possible on the music, and they seem happy to let the connections running through the albums strike the listener as they come, too. “Doppelgänger” places Schubert works alongside new pieces explicitly inspired by them — Thursday’s concert pairs Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Rituals” with Schubert’s “Rosamunde” — and the links in “Prism” are similar, if less deliberately contrived. They can be a matter of direct quotation, as when Schnittke uses the Grosse Fuge in his Third Quartet, or of something as clear as Bartók beginning his First with a slow canon echoing the methods of Beethoven’s Op. 131. But they can also be elusive; you still have to listen, and listen well.
Listening well also reveals the subtle liberties that the Danish bring to their playing, the touches that prevent their performances from ever sounding bland. They find astonishing rhythmic freedom within the confines of their admirable discipline, a lilt to their phrasing that surely stems from the folk songs they so eagerly arrange and perform together. Take, as examples, the sense they make of the awkward opening of the finale of Op. 132, so often ungainly in the hands of others, and the elegant spring they lend to the dancing fourth movement of Op. 130, whose cavatina they unfurl with breathtaking serenity. It’s playing whose virtues speak for themselves, yet its simplicity is anything but.
“The first album was recorded by four relatively fresh young men,” the Danish write in their latest release. “Now we are fathers of babies, toddlers and school kids.” Here is a rare middle age we can welcome.