Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hagen Quartet at Celebrity Series

Photo by Harald Hoffmann
I'm late - very late - with an appreciation of the Quartet, which played at Celebrity Series over a week ago; but then they were late (very late!) in getting to Boston - in fact I don't think they've ever visited the Hub before, in a storied career that has lasted some thirty years.  So - there, I suppose.  How does that feel, Hagen String Quartet?

Okay, so we have no relationship with the Hagens - and I call them that because three-quarters of the quartet are Hagens, in fact they're siblings: Lukas on first violin, Veronika on viola, and Clemens on cello are joined by Rainer Schmidt on second violin (above, I think the familial resemblance is unmistakable).  Think of them as the high-cult von Trapps (they're even from Salzburg!), and you won't be far wrong.  And given their pedigree, perhaps it was no surprise their program was entirely drawn from the Austrian classical heyday around the "Age of Revolution" - we heard from Beethoven, Haydn, then Mozart, in that order (and then Beethoven again, in encore).

And we heard them in a ravishing, yet confidently authoritative, style.  My sibs and I can barely put a dinner together without a fight, but somehow the Hagens have sublimated all the usual sibling rivalry into a truly seamless musical voice.  Theirs is a technique so ingrained it's no longer showy, and a deep familiarity with the musical issues in play in their repertoire (as well as a deep familiarity with each other) has led the Hagens to a rare form of insight that's as superbly balanced as it is subtle.  I confess it's hard to fight the impression that, in the end, "their" voice largely belongs to brother Lukas, on first violin; what is striking is that his vision doesn't feel overbearing, but allows ample musical space to his brother and sister, as well as to violinist Schmidt (let's not forget him!).

There's also an astonishing aura of intelligence, even wit, about the Hagens - a good thing, for the string quartet is the musical form in which for some reason we can most often clearly hear intellectual (or at least musically rhetorical) positions being taken, then abandoned, by the composer in turn.  Indeed, the "subject" of the opening quartet, Beethoven's No. 11 in F minor (the "Serioso") is probably instability or indecision itself.  The opening movement can't quite decide where it wants to end up harmonically (should it land on F, or a half tone higher, on G♭?), and Beethoven transmutes this technical irresolution into an endlessly intriguing expressive irresolution, too; the quartet agitatedly vacillates between  hope and despair even as it oscillates between its intertwined keys.  The effect is rather like that illusionist trick so common to Impressionist artwork, in which an image can swing from a clutch of paint strokes to a sunlit cloud, and then back again, even as you gaze.  Although somehow one felt the Hagens keeping even our perception of the technical concerns of the piece completely under their own control - surely a virtuosic kind of command; but intriguingly, when the quartet's Finale at last turned, as it famously does, from pensiveness to sardonic glee, the Hagens gave a warmer gloss to the joke than perhaps the composer intended.  Where Beethoven indulged in a sad sneer of self-ridicule, the Hagens would only allow him wry amusement.

A similar mood extended effortlessly through Haydn's Op. 33, No. 2, ("The Joke") which is perhaps one of the wittiest quartets ever written - indeed, sometimes I think Haydn may be the greatest musical humorist who ever lived.  The composer is smiling at the start in this one - the opening Allegro moderato strikes a note that's by turns sweet and self-satisfied (unlike Beethoven, however, Haydn renders his emotional voices with straightforward sympathy).  The composer does soon pause for a note of pathos, but soon he's chuckling again; people began giggling spontaneously during the dashing Scherzo (which means "joke," btw), the back-and-forth between the players was so witty, and even the Largo sostenuto seemed to float along on a breeze of bemusement.  It's the Finale, a tripping Presto, however, that's the kicker: it seems drunk on its own whimsy, and titters away to itself endlessly before stuttering to a close; just when you think it's over, it whispers its little theme to itself one last time.  The Hagens carried all this off with sparkling aplomb, though they themselves didn't crack a single smile till their bow.

After a short intermission (during which the crowd buzzed with contented pleasure), the Hagens returned with Mozart's String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575.  By now it seemed the "theme" of the concert was "comedy" - but the Mozart, though light and at times playful, proved one of those examples of the composer's genius in which pure musical exploration - and pleasure - seem to transcend the limits of emotional affect.  It was here, for once, that lead violin Lukas ceded most of his control, and his fellow players took the spotlight one by one.  Written for a king (Friedrich Wilhelm II) who was an experienced cellist, the quartet lavishes long melodic lines on that instrument - yet ironically enough, a tuning peg slipped on cellist Clemens at a key moment, and the movement suddenly seemed to evaporate into thin air. No matter though - all this meant was that we got a free reprise of much of the finale, which was most welcome.  Thunderous applause brought the Hagens back for a reading of the first movement of Beethoven's Op. 18, No. 1, rendered so richly, yet with such lucid attack, that it seemed to calm, rather than excite, the crowd.  We left in a state that I can only call breathless contemplation, hoping desperately it wouldn't be thirty more years before we heard the Hagens again.

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