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Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 4 )

Beethoven Cycle • Hagen Quartet

It’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 predictablyconsiderably 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.

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L.v.Beethoven, String Quartets opp.18/4, 131,
Hagen Quartett

The Hagen Quartet—from left to right Gunther (V1), Mime (V2), Gudrun (Va), and Hagen (Vc) himself—began op.18/1 auspiciously, creating a graceful atmosphere in the wonderful and intimate 800 Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum from the first notes onward. There were plenty of such touches to admire throughout the first and more successful second evening, where they performed the Opus 18, No.6, “Serioso” (op.95) and “Harp” (op.74) quartets. A wispy, light, and interactive Vivace in op.135 flitted by, the teasingly deliberate, concentrated slow movement brought out the suspended quality of the music. Opus 59/1 was sinewy; its first movement flawless, and faceless. On the hunt for further moments of excellence, the wild and coy Variation Finale of the Harp Quartet and the whole of op.18/6—its light-footed vigor in the first movement and the sparkling Scherzo—stood out. The tonic of classical ease that the “Harp” Quartet exudes was most felt in the pointedly upbeat Presto, which seemed to muster all the energy that the Hagens had drained from the Adagio.

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.

Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli, 2010