Beethoven Cycle • Hagen QuartetIt’s billed as a Hagen Quartet Beethoven Cycle—but with two concerts and six of sixteen Beethoven quartets performed this year, it ought probably have a parenthetical “to be continued” subheading: the rest will be played out in 2013 and 14 presumably, to complete the set and therefore make it a cycle. It’s a little less ambitious than the two-partite four-concert fifteen-quartet Shostakovich cycle of the Mandelring Quartet last year (review here), but also more easily digestible. It also turned out—somewhat predictably—considerably more successful than the all-Schubert the Hagen performed in 2011. The first night might have been dubbed “From Alpha to Omega in F major”, starting with Opus 18, No.1, then adding Beethoven’s last completed work of significance, Opus 135, and finishing it off with a middle quartet, “Razumovsky 1”, op. 59, No.1—everyone of them in F major.
L.v.Beethoven, String Quartets opp.18/4, 131,
But the whole was well less than the sum of its parts: on both nights their once famed laser-precision (especially in Beethoven) was traded in for a maximum of contrast, deliberately abrupt phrasing, exaggerated dynamic juxtapositions, and they didn’t serve the quartets equally well, even where it enhanced individual movements like the unyielding third movement Allegro of op.95. The same quartet’s last movement, for example, succumbed to a nervous energy with hints of hysteria where joviality, hollow or genuine, would have been asked for. Elsewhere the trying vigor didn’t go far enough, compared to the ebullience of some of the latest generations of quartets which have, in their collective excellence, made the position of the Hagens a much less rarified one in the String Quartet world.