The Hagen Quartet’s Playing has Riotous Invention

25/11/2018

Schubert, Webern, Haydn: Hagen Quartet (Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt [violins], Veronika Hagen [viola], Clemens Hagen [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 22.11.2018. (MB)

Hagen Quartet (c) Harald Hoffmann

Schubert – String Quartet No.9 in G minor, D 173

Webern – Five Movements, Op.5; Six Bagatelles, Op.9

Haydn – String Quartet in B-flat major, Op.55 No.3

It is rarely anything but a joy to hear the Hagen Quartet, especially when it comes to the central Austro-German repertoire. This Wigmore Hall concert of works by Schubert, Webern, and Haydn proved no exception.

Schubert’s G minor Quartet, D 173, opened the programme. Its first movement proceeded with a ‘rightness’ very much setting the tone for the rest of the concert. Well judged, without a hint of complacency, it offered formal dynamism with due flexibility – and a sense of G minor as a key, as a key with tradition, in the line of Mozart. Lyricism and turbulence were equal partners, Schubert’s often underestimated – even by him – skill with counterpoint their midwife. The Andantino smiled through tears, fragile without sentimentality, the Hagens’ playing as cultivated as the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm. Hushed passages drew one in, above all harmonically, with a simplicity that wanted to be Mozart’s yet, with the pathos of distance, could not quite reach him. Such, after all, is Schubert. The minuet proved very much an heir to its counterpart in the ‘Little’ G minor Symphony, distance and affinity again equally remarkable, as too they were in the post-Mozartian trio. Similarly posed between precursors and the Romantic future, the finale’s aesthetic drama unfolded before our ears as if for the first time.

The two following works received some of the finest Webern playing I have been privileged to hear. In the Five Movements, Op.9, the first movement alone conveyed a full sense of the most concentrated sonata form: not merely structure, but form, experienced in time, in performance. Crucially, it danced too, old Vienna still with us; so too did it sing, unmistakeably in Schubert’s line. Dramatically necessary after that, the second, slow movement seemed more immediately of Schoenberg’s school. Every note – and so much more than every mere note – told. An instrumental scena, Webern’s Erwartung: that was how the central movement, marked ‘Sehr bewegt’, came into our consciousness. Likewise its successor: how every interval spoke to us, possessed of a meaning seemingly beyond the ability of words to communicate. Such listening seemed in retrospect to have prepared us for the final movement, albeit here at least as much vertically as horizontally: Webern’s music might as well have been serial all along. And how much music there is here to play and to listen.

Those Op.5 Movements seemed on the verge of expansive when compared with the concision of the Op.9 Six Bagatelles. There was no mistaking, though, the common voice, the composer unquestionably the same, although the material was entirely different and sounded as such. The first sounded very much as a first movement in the line of Schubert or indeed Haydn, whilst the second brought a world transformed as its bracing wind blew. Terror or passion in the third? Why choose? Webern did not, nor did the Hagen Quartet. A similar refusal to indulge in the either/or characterised the fourth piece, a song of torment, consolation, and so much else. Connections between every note sounded all the more intense, all the more necessary as we reached the fifth and sixth bagatelles, both movements with character of their own, the latter every inch a finale in both style and dramatic necessity.

With Haydn’s B-flat major Quartet, Op.55 No.3, we immediately heard the composer in full maturity. Times on the clock may have been different, but everything counted just as it had in Webern. Who needs a stage when all the musical world is a stage of the mind and senses already? Who needs a vocal quartet, when the instruments can sing and converse like this? Such interplay between ‘characters’, already marked in the first movement, seemed momentarily exchanged for something more ecclesiastical, even sacred, at the beginning of the second. Haydn, though, is never to be pigeon-holed, musical drama between those two tendencies, broadly defined, being revealed as its musical secret, equipoise almost Mozartian – without ever quite sounding ‘like’ the work of the younger composer, and rightly so. The minuet took nothing for granted, emerging all the more strongly for it. There were perhaps greater swing and vigour than I might have expected: again, the Hagens’ performance was one truly to draw one in. The trio followed on and contrasted, just as one might have hoped, if again never quite as one expected. With Haydn and with a great performance of Haydn, one must listen, truly listen. That holds, if anything, still more so for his finales; at any rate, it certainly did so here. Beethoven, Bartók, and many others, Schubert and Webern amongst them, would surely have doffed their hats at such riotous invention. I certainly did.

Mark Berry

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