Unforgettable Beethoven Performances by Hagen Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Hagen Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 30.1.2013 (GD)

String Quartet in A minor Op.132
String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 ‘Razumovsky’

This recital was part of a complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets the Hagen are giving at the Wigmore Hall. I can well remember a superb rendition of the C sharp minor Op.131 Quartet they gave at the Wigmore Hall a couple of years ago. That performance was rather different from their recording of the quartet. But both performance and recording were/are excellent. So my expectations, especially for the great A minor Quartet, were high – and the Hagen did not disappoint.

The whole tone of this quartet is one of contrast, even tonal conflict. The opening violin arpeggio in F, with its prolonged dissonant tone sets the tone of contrast and conflict not only for the first movement, but for the whole quartet. Also there is a sense of tentativeness in this recitative like figuration – a figuration which introduces and hovers over the fifth and final movement Allegro Appassionato. It is perhaps worth noting that Beethoven had originally intended the restless A minor finale as a possible theme for an instrumental last movement of his Ninth Symphony, which, of course, also deploys recitative tones in its opening statements. So how did the Hagen respond to this great and complex work? Overall this was a totally engaging experience – the kind of performance where one is utterly ‘pulled in’, so to speak. The opening contrasts, dissonances, conflicts were wonderfully articulated, as were the plangent tones of the the main allegro, already intoning elements of G sharp, F major and A minor and major, and the wonderfully lyrical and tender second subject in F major. On several occasions I felt the tempo a little slow for a movement marked Allegro, but the Hagen managed this rather broad pace with compelling conviction. This was partly to do with the sense they project between themselves of tremendous concentration and unity. The urgent and abrupt shifts of tone and texture in the development section were suitably sharply inflected and wonderfully contoured – the kind of illumination and conviction one hears in the great quartets of the past like the Veghe, Talich and Budapest Quartets. The recapitulation with its remote keys of E minor and C major, the following resolution in A major, and the almost ghost-like shift back to A minor in the sublime coda, were all managed with an integrated conviction only found in the greatest performances of this daunting masterpiece.

The second movement Allegro ma non tanto, although in A major, continues the quartet’s tone of ambiguity – not really a minuet and nowhere near to a scherzo. It has often been noted that this movement looks back to Mozart’s A major Quartet, K 464, and indeed this was a favourite work of Beethoven. The Hagen registered this ‘Mozartian’ sense of tonal, stylistic ambiguity with assured conviction and tonal finesse. Beethoven deploys German dance material for the trio, with bagpipe-like drones. Initially here the first violin, for a fraction of a second, ascended too high into the upper register., but if anything this slip enhanced the feeling of spontaneity and flexibility. Classic recordings of late quartets from the likes of the Busch Quartet are replete with such performative slips – minor ensemble imperfections which have never bothered those who see/hear a wider dimension in these unique works.

Much has been written about the great central movement of this quartet, the ‘Song of Thanksgiving’ in the ‘Lydian mode’ (the key of F, with B natural instead of B flat) It is one of Beethoven’s longest and most intense movements. I could write at length about this movement and the Hagen’s rendition of. It, but I will confine myself to saying that I have rarely heard a more sustained and intense rendition. Some quartets emphasise the Baroque associations here… the Lydian mode deployed by great pre-Baroque masters like Palestrina, whose music Beethoven had studied. Such performances emphasise the sense of ‘timeless contemplation. All this registered with the Hagen’s performance, but it was also charged by an intensity which contrasted well with archaic aura of the music. The contrast in the dance like D major Andante, which Beethoven marked ‘Neue Kraft fühlend’ (‘Feeling new strength) was inflected with an almost ironic agility and ornamental gracefulness totally in accord with this work, and Beethoven’s ‘late style’ in general.

After the brief march movement in A major, given an almost humorous tone tonight at an exceptionally fast tempo (in keeping with the ‘piu allegro’ marking) the last movement, which takes the basic form of a rondo with an impassioned, waltz-like refrain, was given a performance which again perfectly realised the movement’s many complexities of mood, texture and tonal progression from the opening quasi-operatic recitative figurations, recalling the work’s opening theme, its thematic inversions, its shifts, especially from A minor to A major, and much else. What I found particularly compelling and enchanting here was the way the ‘sublime’ waltz-like theme emerged not just as a ‘valse triste’, as it has often been likened to, but as something more mutated, more prismatic, and difficult to pin down to a single definition – what the great Beethoven specialist Theodor Adorno called ‘the prism of the broken dialectic’. But finally, what was truly remarkable about tonight’s rendition was the way in which it was able to register this tone of ambiguity, ‘alienation’, as cohering in an overall structural unity. Towards the work’s coda I was particularly aware of the way the Hagen made poignantly resonant , through the prominent stress on F throughout the quartet, the trace not only of the opening Assai sostenuto but also of the beautiful Lydian ‘Dankgesang’, of the adagio emerging like a spectral light through Beethoven’s telling melodic detail.

Apart from the first movement of the Quartet in C minor Op.95, the first movement of Op.59, No.2 is the most terse and directly dramatic of the quartets. The Hagen delivered this opening as a real Allegro, full of thrusting intensity. The quartet is in E minor, a tonality Beethoven did not often deploy and in all four movements the tonality revolves around E minor/major. But Beethoven typically compromises this tonal unity by introducing a bold C major into the finale – again a tonality of ‘broken symmetry’. or tonal ambiguity, which the composer developed more extensively in the late quartets. Throughout this first movement the Hagen emphasised the thematic dominance of the two abrupt opening chords reaching its climax in the truculent but impassioned development section. The drama and intensity became, if anything, even bolder in the chordal clashes and urgent energetic tutti running passages which conclude the movement. The harmonic power, and the serene confidence of the central chorale-like theme with variations of the second movement Molto adagio seemed to play themselves. The Hagen maintained a fairly sustained and consistent tempo throughout. Much has been made of the sentimental anecdote, initiated by Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny, of the composer contemplating the starry heavens and invoking the music of the spheres while composing this movement. There no actual evidence for this beyond Czerny’s alleged anecdote. Tonight the Hagen’s absolute conviction in the music itself dispelled such romantic hyperbole, making it seem totally redundant. Much more interesting was the way in which they articulated the slightly held back inflections of the chorale-theme which becomes strongly reminiscent of the ‘Song of Thanksgiving’ in the late Quartet in A minor, Op 132. It could well be the reasoning behind the decision to couple the two works in the same recital? The Hagen made the most of the way in which the chorale melody transforms into a strongly accented and dramatic motive before the movement concludes with a return to the former mood of peaceful serenity

The following scherzo, with its ‘lopsided gait’ was again taken at a swift tempo despite it being marked Allegretto. But it was fascinating to hear with what precision and humour the Hagen’s managed the persistent syncopated rhythms between 6/8 and 3/4 at this speed. When I first heard Mussorgksy’s great Russian opera ‘Boris Godunov’ I was struck and delighted by the main theme in the Coronation Scene. Where had I heard it before? Of course Beethoven incorporates the same ‘Russian’ theme in the E major trio section, his ‘Theme Russe’ taken from an ancient Russian folk tune and all in honour of Count Razumovsky to whom the Op. 59 quartets are dedicated. The Hagen obviously had great fun repeating this theme against various counter-subjects, often in mock-fugal style. There was one small oddity. The Hagen played the trio detached, as it were, from the main scherzo, with a brief pause at the beginning and the end. There is no indication of this in my score. But perhaps they were using a different edition? Or perhaps it was an interpretational choice? I prefer the trio as a continuous part of the scherzo without pauses. But this is a minor point; it certainly did not detract from the vibrant splendour of the rendition.

The Hagen brought out all the urgent exuberance of the Presto finale. The sonata-rondo form here is familiar but, as noted above, Beethoven in his juxtapositions of E minor/major increasingly turns to a C major register. And things become more complicated when the sinuous second subject in B minor appears. This is a further illustration of Beethoven rarely complying to initial expectations. There is always something unexpected, which. of course, is one of the reasons this unique music is so fascinating and challenging for both performers and listeners. Right up to the short coda marked Piu presto the Hagen registered every shift, turn and unified tonal complexity of this protean masterpiece. For me it was an unforgettable musical experience.

Geoff Diggines