From the Hagen Quartet in Philadelphia, a Webern Gem Outshines Two Other Masterpieces

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Webern, Beethoven: Hagen Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 29.3.2019. (BJ)

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen (f.l.t.r)
Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen

Schubert – String Quartet in A minor D.804, ‘Rosamunde’
Webern – Five Movements for String Quartet Op.5
Beethoven – String Quartet in C sharp minor Op.131

This, I fear, is going to be one of those infuriating ‘while so-and-so…on the other hand such-and-such’ reviews.

Now two years short of its 40th anniversary, and with three of its founding members still in place, the Salzburg-based Hagen Quartet enjoys an enviable reputation as one of the world’s finest string quartets, and much of this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert went to justify that reputation. And yet, and yet…!

I would never have thought that one day I should find myself deriving more pleasure from a work by Webern than from a Schubert masterpiece heard on the same program. Schubert’s A-minor Quartet, I hasten to say, opened the evening in a performance of the utmost professional solidity.

Lukas Hagen is a quartet leader of unfailing security; Rainer Schmidt and Veronika Hagen shape and color the inner parts with much artistry; and Clemens Hagen, with his caressing cello line, supplies a strong foundation for the ensemble’s texture without drawing excessive attention to himself. There was nothing actively wrong with what these excellent musicians were doing. But the word that came irresistibly to mind as I sought to characterize the impact of their performance was ‘magisterial’. Now magisterial authority in playing the classics is no mean feat — but this particular Schubert quartet is lyrical and atmospheric rather than magisterial, and I could have done with much more in the way of grace, of flexibility, of tonal bloom, and of sheer charm in the performance than it delivered.

Then came Webern, and suddenly all those more personal qualities shone forth. Within a few measures, Lukas Hagen’s tone — which had seemed a touch prosaic in the Schubert — blossomed with compelling richness and warmth, and in the interactions of the four players those attributes continued to reveal the attractions that I had never really suspected in the piece. This was, indeed, the finest — the most captivating — Webern performance I can recall hearing in fully half a century.

Concluding the evening was an account of what may well be Beethoven’s greatest string quartet that returned disappointingly to professional panache rather than to the revelatory level of the group’s Webern. Oh, there was nothing to cavil about in the Hagen’s tempo choices, and there were again some fine and beautiful moments. Most notable of all, perhaps, was the treatment of those sforzando accents that light up the extraordinary fugue theme at the very start, which the players realized with life-giving vividness yet without ever damaging the music’s continuity of line.

So far, so good. But through the rest of the work such illuminations were the exception rather than the rule, and for me a Beethoven Op.131 performance that falls short of scaling the empyrean simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

Looking back on an evening that certainly afforded a good deal of civilized satisfaction, but rarely blew me away, I cannot help wondering whether there is a parallel to be found with the late career of the celebrated Amadeus Quartet. Founded in 1947, that stellar group remained active, like the Hagen (and without any change of personnel), for four decades. I admired their recordings enormously. But by the time I was old enough to hear them live I could not shake off the impression that, by then, they had played the great quartet classics so often that they could no longer find anything fresh to say about them.

Merely a theory. Maybe one day another encounter with the Hagen Quartet will suffice to show me that I have been talking nonsense. This was, without doubt, a good concert. But ah, that the Webern performance should have been able to crowd out the Schubert and Beethoven in my memory! That took some doing.

Bernard Jacobson

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