In Salzburg: Mozart rightly at centre of three of the supreme masters of the string quartet

AustriaAustria Mozartwoche Salzburg 2024 [5] – Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: Hagen Quartet (Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt [violins], Veronika Hagen [viola], Clemens Hagen [cello]). Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 30.1.2024. (MB)

Hagen Quartet © Wolfgang Lienbacher

Haydn – String Quartet in D minor, Op.76 No.2, Hob. III:76, ‘Fifths’
Mozart – String Quartet in D minor, KV 421/417b
Beethoven – String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op.131

Three string quartets in minor keys, two of them in the same minor key, might sound like an overload of misery, or at least darkness, but matters were more mixed in this Hagen Quartet Mozartwoche recital. It was not exactly full of the joys of spring, but then we have some way to go in our Winterreise before we reach such joys. More to the point, we could enjoy a cornucopia of invention from three of the supreme masters of the genre, Mozart rightly at the centre.

Haydn was, of course, as close to the inventor of the string quartet as makes little matter, certainly its ‘father’ in a way he was not, as once was claimed, of the symphony. He was represented by his ‘Fifths’ Quartet, written at least five years after Mozart’s death, but his voice arguably seemed the oldest here, not least with respect to a surprising approach towards ‘early music’ sound at its opening. Whatever the issues of ‘style’, motivic integrity and emotional intensity are the crucial things for the first movement; they were certainly to be found here. The development’s very particular course was vividly communicated, bringing us to a recapitulation of drama, both on the motivic and the broader harmonic levels, midway between the High Baroque and Beethoven. Melodic grace and expressive depth characterised the second movement variations, major/minor oscillation key to their progress. Vigour and rigour were insistently common to both minuet and trio, as well as to the finale. We tend to associate the daemonic with Mozart and Beethoven in this key, but Haydn here made his claim just as strong, through material and sheer originality in its working that could be only his. This was a fine mental work-out, moving in equal measure: that is, first-rate Haydn.

Mozart in D minor followed: the second of his quartets dedicated to Haydn. Not that it did not possess many of the qualities ascribed above to Haydn, but what struck me immediately was the greater, more personal pathos, inviting one in to a drama whose subjectivity suggested this might actually be ‘Mozart’s’ drama too, albeit with a question mark such as one would never sense, rightly or wrongly, with Beethoven. The Hagen Quartet made no apologies for the complexity of the first movement, greatly admired by Schoenberg, its development counterpoint Janus-faced in protomodernism and archaism — or so one could fancy. The turn to the minor for the recapitulation’s second group was echt-Mozart, of course, and so it sounded here. The Andante first breathed a warm consolation that was yet fragile, followed by a vehemence sometimes tragic, sometimes merely stark: terms were thus set, to be properly developed. There was no doubting the vehemence of the minuet either, nor the necessary contrast of memories of Salzburg serenading in its trio. If the finale seemed to suggest Schubert, it often does on the page too. The idiocy one often hears about Classical variation form somehow being lesser than that of the Baroque or Romanticism was once again so utterly confounded as to have one wonder how anyone might have thought such a thing in the first place. Perhaps the Hagens might have exercised a tighter grip at times, but there was virtue in not pressing too hard.

By the end of that first half, my ears were ready for a new key. Beethoven offered that – and not only that – in the advent and unfolding of his C-sharp minor Quartet. The ineffable sadness of the first-movement fugue, so moving and prophetic for Wagner, was expressed without exaggeration, material apparently speaking ‘for itself’, albeit with a (relatively) gentle sforzando nudge for the final note of the subject during the exposition. Everything, it seemed, came from its first statement. As Webern once put it, ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That’s the strongest unity… But in what form? That’s where art comes in!’ Art certainly came in here, at its rarest and most sublime. For whilst this is undoubtedly holy ground, it was so not because we have designated as such, but through intense, honest, ultimately radiant expression: Beethoven’s, above all, but also surely that of the performers.

A quizzical second movement and good-natured third led us to twin complexity and simplicity in the central fourth. Depth and direction were prey to ‘late’ instability, yet were never quite defeated, that instability transformed into a guiding principle for the scherzo whose manic rigour seemed to take us all the way to Bartók, even Schoenberg, and perhaps even beyond. It may, even though one ‘knew’ otherwise, have seemed to be hurtling towards a conclusion, but serene intervention in the guise of the sixth movement and something approaching tragedy in the finale ensured there were no easy answers — or even questions. This final movement hallowed both ‘old’ and ‘new’, again posing the question ‘how to end it all?’ A signal strength of the Hagens’ performance was that, again irrespective of whether one ‘knew’, one felt that all was in the balance until the very end.

Mark Berry

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