The Hagen String Quartet are Full of Excellence at the Wigmore Hall

24/11/2017

Beethoven, Webern, Schumann: Hagen String Quartet (Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, violins; Veronika Hagen, viola; Clemens Hagen, cello), Wigmore Hall, London, 24.11.2017. (CC)

Beethoven – String Quartet in C minor, Op.18 No.4

Webern – Fünf Sätze, Op.5

Schumann – String Quartet In A, Op.41/3

Ever welcome guests in London, the Austrian Hagen String Quartet is an ensemble at the very top of the string quartet tree. This season, the quartet has ben focusing on Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets and Webern’s output for string quartet: hence the first half of the programme. Apparently this season they have also been highlighting the quartets of Debussy and Ravel, but on this occasion we remained true to Austro-Germanic roots with a quartet by Schumann.

The Schumann was the real reason this concert stood out in the listings. His quartets are, to this day, underrated. But before that, Beethoven’s C minor Quartet, Op. 18/4. Some commentators have criticised Beethoven’s work for being too orchestral in intent and scoring, but the Hagens gave a performance of the utmost belief and concentration. The first aspect of their playing to strike the listener was the clarity of lines and the warmth of the quartet; then the delicious second subject crept in before the development became fiercely heated.

The second movement is marked ‘Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto’, a hybrid movement that leads to a Minuet that was here more of a scherzo itself. But that second movement held the real gold gentilité coupled with Beethovenian heaviness, perfectly blended in moments of stillness and with a real pianissimo towards the close. The finale brimmed with energy, with lovely contrapuntal episodes. Superb.

One wonders if the presence of Webern on the programme was why this evening was not sold out? Not by any means, in fact. And yet from the very first sound, it was clear Webern’s music is in the Hagen Quartet members’ blood. The real achievement here was to provide a Janus-like performance, unashamedly bigging up Romantic gestures so they looked to the past while unashamedly projecting the rarefied utterances, so they pointed forwards way into the avant garde. Timbrally the performance was stunning, the sheer variety of sound on offer almost beyond belief. The beauty of the lachrymose final piece was heart-stopping. Simply magnificent.

And so, post-interval, to that Schumann Quartet. It is a fascinating piece: the Scherzo is cast as a set of variations. The Hagens’ sure awareness of line and exchanges between instruments in the first movement brought huge joy: it was the very epitome of chamber music. Grace and civility itself, the Allegro molto moderato main body appeared easily and inevitably from the Andante espressivo.

The complex, impassioned Scherzo was beautifully sophisticated, its rhythmic complexities perfectly honoured. The control of all four players was stunning. However, the opening of the finale could have been more pointed, and the energy did sag somewhat thereafter.

An encore was definitely in order, though, and so it was. Just the one, staying with the same opus number: the Adagio from the Schumann A minor Quartet, Op.41/1 (the one that threatens to go into the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), a tender love song that acted as a nocturne. A brilliant way to close a relatively short concert (about 9.15pm finish), but one full of excellence.

Colin Clarke

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