Superlative Playing of Mozart from the Hagen Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: Hagen Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 25.1.2015. (GD)

Mozart: String Quartet in G Major K387;
String Quartet in  D minor K421:
String Quartet in E flat K428


Of the musical events in London there are few which are as rewarding and important as the Wigmore Hall’s current ‘Mozart Odyssey’. This combined with the Wigmore’s ideal chamber acoustic and, as my colleague Colin Clarke observed, its attentive and quiet audience, make these concerts unique.

 It is well known that Mozart dedicated this six quartet set to his composer friend Josef Haydn. In a letter to Haydn in 1875 Mozart humorously refers to the quartets as ‘my children given over to a great man’. But what is particularly interesting here is the way in which Mozart stresses how difficult it was for him to compose these works: …’the fruit of long and laborious effort’. I mention this as it problematizes the standard perception that all of Mozart’s compositions flowed directly from his creative faculties to his pen. Of course, there is some truth in the former perception; we know that he could spin off an opera overture on demand so to speak, but here it is more likely that certain themes and whole compositions were stored in his remarkable mind probably partly for practical reasons like compositional deadlines.

 K 387, the first in the set, instantly impresses by its natural elegance and feeling of  harmonic flow. But actually all of this is subtended by some of the most homophonic. economic and focused part-writing of its time. As the exposition unfolds, every instrument  has the opportunity to come to the fore. Here Haydn’s Op. 33 registers as an obvious model, although Mozart greatly expands on the structure of the earlier Haydn set. At the end of the exposition – which the Hagens thankfully repeated – there are some final ‘punctuating’ chords played pianissimo to punctuate a convincing conclusion.    This was one of  two places in this recital where the Hagen’s introduce a quite odd mannerism. Rather than playing the chords as punctuating a conclusion, they punctuated them in themselves (to use a Kantian expression): they were detached from the exposition conclusion, emphasised by being played at a considerably slower tempo, also having the effect of intruding upon the overall coherence of the movement.

 After the concert I played recordings from the Italianos, the Emersons, and the Mosaiques, and they  all play the chords as directed following on in the same tempo from the conclusion of the exposition with no rhetorical pauses. This kind of mannerism, I would imagine could become tiresome on repeated listenings, and I would certainly want to listen to these superb (in every other way) performances many times.  The rest of K 387 was compellingly navigated by the Hagens. The minuet, as in Haydn’s Op. 20 and Op.33, comes second. Its juxtaposition of diatonic and chromatic elements – as in the first movement – were both foregrounded and made to cohere, and what a wonderful contrast the G minor trio made, also containing some superbly economic coordinated juxtapositions of dynamics and texture. The Andante cantabile with its wonderful melodies and conversational style, in subtle contrast to Mozart’s deployment of unexpected harmonic juxtapositions, has  the sense of a kind of fragile and discreetly troubled modality, one of those ‘undecided’ mood-scapes, unique to Mozart.

 For a long time it was thought that the finale (Molto allegro) with its myriad fugal textures, was an obvious extension of the famous fugal structures of Haydn’s Op 20. But we now know that they have very little in common with the older man’s set, being underscored by far more complex chromatic registers, and also juxtaposed with ‘lighter’ elements from opera buffa. The more dark-toned chromatic colours – with lower voices, were especially effective in the coda. All this fantastic compositional range was superbly realised by the Hagens. Their tonal range is particularly impressive, sounding both mellifluous and glowing when they are all playing together, but also sounding more trenchantly urgent and incisive in movements like the fugal finale of K 387.

 K 421 is the only minor key quartet in the set. For Mozart D minor is both a tragic and dramatic key, and the quartet is worthy of comparison with such great masterpieces as the D minor Piano Concerto K466, the overture, climax and conclusion of Don Giovanni, the great Queen of the Night aria of the second act in Die Zauberflöte and the last of all his works, the unfinished Requiem. Although the first movement is marked Allegro, the Hagens took it at quite a measured pace emphasising the seriousness and dramatic grandeur of the piece. This slower pacing is implied in the score despite the Allegro heading. The abundant sixteenth note – triplet figuration preventing any notion of haste. Here the Hagens emphasised the noble pathos of the Baroque era, which Mozart had studied in composers like Pergolesi and Alessandro Scarlatti, having resonance in the octave jump downward in the main motive playing an important part in the development section. Initially the second movement  Andante  has an easy-going tone of a serenade movement. The main theme taking on the form of an elegiac melody. But things soon become darker and the second  theme in the minor – a three note upbeat motif of the first theme – actually constituting the movement’s middle section, is dramatically emphasised by sudden terse pauses. This whole minor key design increasingly takes on a more dramatic, even tragic tone, reminiscent of the first movement.

 It is in this movement that I found the Hagens again  rather mannered. Their tempo was extraordinarily slow for an Andante. But having said this I became more and more convinced. They managed to sustain this slower tempo and thereby actually enhanced the drama of the minor key middle section. Here I was reminded of how Klemperer, especially in his later years, would adopt an unusually broad tempo and make it sound totally convincing by his overall extraordinary structural grasp, and trenchant musical insight. The Hagens realised with complete mastery all the myriad and contrasting features of the two last movements; the sharp, polyphonic Minuet with ‘snap’ rhythms of the minor key trio – one commentator calling this minuet a concentrated replica of the minuet of the great G minor Symphony K 550; and the last movement as a masterful set of variations in the siciliano metre of 6/8. Actually it is the closest in this set to Haydn; especially his Opus 33 No. 5, also in variation form.

 All the above features of the superlative playing of the Hagens applied equally to the E flat Quartet K 428. The first movement with its daring ways (for the time) of combining a diatonic tonal framework with chromatic linear writing – from the very opening of the first movement the combination is overt.  It continues in the beautifully  sonorous A flat ‘slow’ movement marked Andante con moto, just as effectively. The minuet continued the links with Haydn’s Op. 33, with rustic sounding ‘musette’ pedals and contrasting minor key formations in the trio. All were brought together in the E flat finale with its pithy short motives alternating with rapid passage-work. More than one commentator has found similarities here with the Haydnesque sounding finale of the great E flat Symphony No. 39 K 543.

 Overall, and despite (or maybe because of) my reservations, this was some of the most superlative string quartet playing I have heard. As I said, Mozart found composing quartets most difficult. We could add that this equally applies to the playing his quartets, some of the most diverse and wonderful music ever composed. But there was absolutely no sign of this difficulty in the Hagens’ playing, which came over as totally spontaneous  and with a strong sense of the most affective empathy. My colleague Colin Clarke, who reviewed the  other three ‘Haydn’ quartets put it well  he noted the Hagens’ ‘conversational’ quality, their ‘unmistakable affection’ for Mozart’s unique music.

Geoff Diggines

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