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Ionarts-at-Large: The Hagen Quartett in Shostakovich, Dvořák and Schubert

available at Amazon
DSCH, String Quartets 4, 11, 14
Hagen Quartet

available at Amazon
A.Dvorak, Cypresses, "American Quartet
+ Kodaly, String Quartet No.2
Hagen Quartet

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Schubert, Trout Quintet, Death & the Maiden Quartet
Hagen Quartet + James Levine & Alois Posch

Hagen Quartett Reviews on ionarts:

Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 7 ) • Hagen Quartett II

Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 4 )

Dip Your Ears, Addendum 48b (X-Ray Beethoven) [2005]

The Hagen Quartet increasingly seems like a holdover from a bygone time where classical superstars were fewer but bigger, about four record companies ruled the classical high seas, recording contracts were naturally exclusive, and new releases a real event. Itzhak Perlman, Misha Maisky, the Emerson Quartet, Martha Argerich – to mention three still-active acts, are representatives of this age of mythic musical dinosaurs… and the Hagen Quartet belongs, too. They once set the standard for hyper-precise perfection; a sort-of Pierre Boulez of String Quartets.

There have been several crops of string quartets who have since equaled these technical standards to the point where they alone are no longer all that noteworthy. The Hagen Quartet’s UPC of über-perfection that not even the similarly pioneering Alban Berg and Emerson Quartet could rival is therefore no more – also because the quartet’s ability has declined not only in relative but also absolute terms. No one is cheating age, and the first violinist of the ensemble, Lukas Hagen, least of them – having been the quartet’s weak point in the last half decade or so.

That should be put to the test in their recital on Saturday, March 2nd, at the Mozart Hall of Vienna’s Konzerthaus, seeing that Shostakovich’s Fourth String Quartet was first on the bill. The sublime hall – one of the best for chamber music (with a capacity of 700, fine acoustics and bright blue and beautiful interior) – was filled to the brim, with extra chairs put on stage to accommodate the demand: The result of the Hagen Quartet have built themselves a following with regular appearances and their own cycle of concerts over the course of well more than a decade.

The Shostakovich started out with Lukas Hagen’s fittingly dark, matt, husky tone and enormous pressure he put on the notes in the introductory quartet. He did just fine for a movement and more before being notably squeezed to the edge of his increasingly small comfort zone in the Andantino. Clemens Hagen, still an anchor for the foursome (a brief flat moment in the Schubert aside), shone with moments of his singularly light-yet-resonant tone. For three movements the interpretation was a bit like excellent painting by numbers, more beautiful than intense, but the accumulating energy of the finale – if not boisterous at least insistent – amounted to something.

What the subsequent four movements of Dvořák’s Cypresses Quartet and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden showed, was that the once trademark transparency and inner glow has given way to a denser, thicker sound, more sonorous and ‘woodier’. That didn’t necessarily suit the Dvořák (largely low-energy pieces that are admittedly difficult to pull off with any great panache), where “I Know that My Love to Thee”, “Death Reigns in Many a Human Breast”, “The Old Letter in My Book” and “Thou Only, Dear One” (plus “Thou Only, Dear One” as an encore after the Schubert) never came across as more than a musical afterthought – a long lull between Shostakovich and Schumann, achingly sincere at best and insufficiently endowed with life and spark.

Lukas Hagen, with his intonation softening and too often falling back onto a forced and congested sound, gently, subtly squeaked in distress like a Maiden might, faced with death. The middle voices, Rainer Schmidt, violin, and Veronika Hagen, viola, were on the passive side – not breathy nor hollow as one might wish in the Schubert Quaret’s second movement, but with tenderness and gentle detail. The playing was altogether short of a distinct ‘interpretation’ or, to spin it positively, free of excessive fingerprints. The Hagen Quartet aren’t spinning their silver threads like they once did, but by all standards except the one they once set, they are still a class act that delivers fine performances. For the finale everyone pulled together, bringing a pretty sophisticated evening of chamber music to a successful end.

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