Decades of excellence: the enduring brilliance of the Hagen Quartet

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Bartók, Beethoven: Hagen Quartet (Lukas Hagen & Rainer Schmidt [violins], Veronika Hagen [viola], Clemens Hagen [cello]). Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 6.3.2024. (ESS)

Hagen Quartet © Harald Hoffman

Haydn – String Quartet No.62 in C major, Op.76, No.3, ‘Emperor’
Bartók – String Quartet No.2, Op.17
Beethoven – String Quartet in A minor, Op.132

The Salzburg-based Hagen Quartet, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2021, has a storied performance and recording history. Following a four-year hiatus, the musicians returned to Carnegie’s Zankel Hall with a program that inserted a work composed in the first half of the twentieth century between a Classical quartet and a late Beethoven one.

The C major is arguably the finest among the six quartets in Haydn’s Op.76 series, conceived during his late creative period when he continued to transform the string quartet, a genre he did not invent but radically altered. The Quartet No.62’s nickname, ‘Emperor’, comes from the composer’s use in the second movement of his own hymn tune, ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’ (‘God save the Emperor Franz’).

The Hagens started their rendition with a hint of tentativeness. Attacks were not exactly clean, the balance suffered. Nevertheless, the situation redressed itself quickly, so any thoughts about the decay of their prowess immediately vanished. The rustic segments were played with gusto. The slow movement’s variations unfolded with remarkable nobility as each instrument took a turn articulating the theme. Beginning with a somber minor introduction, the concluding Finale: Presto swiftly evolved into a lively Sturm und Drang central section characterized by finely crafted counterpoint.

The outbreak of the First World War interrupted Béla Bártok’s ethnomusicological quest to record and catalogue folk songs from Hungary, the Balkans and even North Africa. The songs, which stood outside the mainstream European tradition, utilized scales that defied classification as major or minor and possessed their own unique harmony, vastly different from that taught in the Budapest Academy of Music.

The closure of Hungarian borders forced Bartók into a period of reflection and consolidation. He sought to reconcile his early interest in the music of Richard Strauss and Debussy with his pre-war awareness of Schoenberg’s experiments in atonalism and Stravinsky’s new endeavors, as well as the different musical universe he discovered in his travels. The result was a turning point in Bartók’s compositional output: the String Quartet No.2, which he began in 1915 and completed two years later.

The Hagen Quartet’s rendition of the intricate and challenging music, which may be daunting for those less acquainted with it, was the evening’s high point. The foursome exquisitely portrayed the classical-tragedy-like progression towards an inevitable and shattering end, seemingly preordained since the kernel of all the thematic exploits is already present in the opening bars. Despite the distinct characteristics of each movement, there was a sense of continuous development throughout.

The Hagens set the stage in the first movement with its tonal/atonal feeling and a tender, minor-key motif that suggests an atmosphere of tranquility. The Allegro molto capriccioso, sounding Arabic but including typical Hungarian syncopations, was played with frenetic energy. The group’s experience is such that each individual voice was perfectly distinguishable in the overall maelstrom.

The third movement’s arrival, characterized by extended periods of stillness, suggested a post-apocalyptic mood. The soundscape seemed barren and desolated, evoking thoughts of existential despair and human vulnerability in the face of an uncertain future. The concluding pizzicato pair of minor-thirds, stark and solitary, lingered in the minds of listeners as a symbol of hopelessness.

Human vulnerability is also the subject of Beethoven’s famous Molto adagio – Andante middle section of his Quartet in A minor. Subtitled ‘Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart’ (‘Sacred song of thanksgiving from one who is recovered, to the Deity; in the Lydian mode’), it was conceived after the composer’s recovery from a near-fatal illness. Unlike Bartók’s Op.17, the message of Beethoven’s hymn, further emphasized by the following two movements which are tonic and full of pulsing energy, is one of optimism.

The members of the Hagen Quartet mastered the long and complex ‘Dankgesang’, with its two more joyful interludes, with the utmost sincerity and genuine feeling, as if playing it for the first, rather than the hundredth, time. The ensemble’s togetherness and profound understanding of the music and each other was palpable from the initial two-half-step interval separated by a leap intoned by the cello (a pattern that reappears throughout the entire score) to the appassionato Finale. After more than four decades of collaboration between its members, the Hagen Quartet truly sounded like a single musician with eight arms and four bows.

Edward Sava-Segal

Leave a Comment