Salzburg Festival (2): Penetrating Beethoven from the Hagen Quartet

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (2) – Beethoven: Hagen Quartet (Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (violins), Veronika Hagen (viola), Clemens Hagen (cello)). Groβer Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 20.8.2013 (MB)

Beethoven: String Quartet no.15 in A minor, op.132
Quartet no.8 in E minor, op.59 no.2, ‘Razumovsky’

This was the third of six concerts in the Hagen Quartet’s Salzburg cycle of the Beethoven string quartets. There was a great deal to admire in both performances, although the Hagens seemed perhaps more attuned to middle-period than to late Beethoven, on occasion slightly recoiling from the radicalism, the ruptures of the latter. Op.132 nevertheless opened with great promise, the first movement’s first bars quiet yet febrile, here seeming almost to presage Bartók. The Allegro proper did not simply begin, but emerged from the former material, with a dialectical sense of interplay, indeed mutual self-definition, between and of those two ‘characters’. This, perhaps the finest movement of the performance, with considerable cumulative power and emotional intensity, proved admirably open-ended in terms of possibilities lying ahead, yet anything but lacking in inevitability when considered even immediately after the musical event: not the first time anyone has mentally connected Beethoven’s and Hegel’s dialectical methods. If the following Allegro ma non tanto lacked the final degree of rhythmic definition, it retained a good sense of the threat to disintegrate, the trio offering a properly transcendental swing, with well-judged disruption in that extraordinary passage in unison. Opening warmth in the Heilige Dankgesang was aptly followed by austerity, Beethoven’s working out of those two characters again proving key to the movement’s progress, Palestrina haunting productively. The ‘Neue Kraft fühlend’ section’s sense of leisurely propulsion was splendidly conveyed, not least through the offices of a slight drag to its early first beats; likewise the final bars of the movement proved wondrously luminous. Rhythmic impetus was tied, as it must be, to harmony in the final two movements, though I could not help but wish for a greater expressive range. It was fine quartet playing, without a doubt, but might have been taken further to the edge. This is, after all, a sibling to the Missa solemnis, yet this is perhaps not the most Adornian of ensembles.

The opening to the second Razumovsky Quartet offered vehemence, immediately followed by withdrawal; again, the working out between those two tendencies would be the stuff of the first movement as a whole. I was reminded quite how extraordinary, even now, it remains that so much music can be inherent in so little (at least apparently so little) material. Form ultimately proved more dynamic than it had in the performance of op.132, and the Hagens seemed more willing to travel to expressive extremes, if still with a greater reticence than some groups. That reserve was occasionally apparent in an expansive account of the slow movement; when it was cast off entirely, however, the expressive rewards were rich indeed. Though it certainly did not lack vehement impetus, the third movement remained – fair enough – in the realm of cultivated string playing; abandon is not really the Hagens’ style, but it does not really need to be. The trio nevertheless gave a sense of digging deeper still, middle-period Beethoven made, if anything, to sound still more radical than his later counterpart. There were ambiguities, tonal and otherwise, throughout the motivic working of the finale. There was little doubt that the Hagen players had found their Beethoven.

Mark Berry