Hagen Quartet at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Haydn, Shostakovich & Brahms

String Quartet in E flat, Op.33/2 (Joke)
String Quartet No.4 in D, Op.83
String Quartet No.3 in B flat, Op.67

Hagen Quartet [Lukas Hagen & Rainer Schmidt (violins), Veronika Hagen (viola) & Clemens Hagen (cello)]

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 23 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Hagen Quartet. Photograph: Regina RechtThis concert could be seen as illustrating the emancipation of the viola in the string quartet. The instrument has the tune at the start of Haydn’s Largo, unusually for that composer; it has important solos in Brahms’s last two movements; and by the time we get to Shostakovich, its interventions can almost be taken for granted. But the programme had another common thread, in that, for all their serious moments, the three works are notably light and airy in texture. The members of the Hagen Quartet – three of whom are celebrating thirty years of playing together, while the fourth has been present for twenty-four – matched the lightness and airiness with playing of delicate technical address, near-perfect ensemble and sensitive balance.

The three Salzburgers and one German have modified their style considerably over the years. In particular they have lessened their vibrato, no doubt under the influence of ‘period’-instrument players. By coincidence, in the past week I have been listening to recordings by the Sevcík Quartet (Prague) from 1929, superbly played on gut strings, and new Haydn recordings by the Festetics Quartet (Budapest), perhaps the best ‘authentic’-instrument ensemble. There are some not-so-surprising congruence between the basically nineteenth-century style of the Czechs, the authentically Classical style of the Hungarians and the approach of the Hagen members. All three depend on purity of tone and tuning to achieve their effects; they observe a good dynamic range, with a genuine pianissimo; and they never try to push out too much tone. It seems that good string-playing is more consistent over the decades than we would sometimes like to think.

Yet I have had my doubts over the Hagen players recent playing of Mozart and Beethoven. But on this evidence, their Haydn is in good shape. The opening movement of the ‘Joke’ was more serious than we sometimes hear, but the Trio of the Minuet was well matched in tempo – and, interestingly, Lukas Hagen allowed himself some portamento. The Largo was very well done – all evening, the foursome ended slow movements with the most marvellous concentration – and the famous false endings of Haydn’s finale were delightfully timed.

These musicians have performed quite a lot of Shostakovich. I thought their Fourth Quartet was most thoughtfully and sensitively played until the finale, when they rightly applied more emotion, excitement and tension. The ‘what-shall-we-do-with-the-drunken-sailor’ rhythm in the scherzo was splendidly precise.

Rainer Schmidt says he and his colleagues have only recently found an approach to Brahms that satisfies them. The B flat String Quartet is perhaps the best of the three that the composer shared with the world – Brahms is more completely himself than in the two works of Opus 51 and he is more carefree, as if he had finally shaken off the burden that was Beethoven. The bucolic atmosphere of the opening bars was nicely caught and the whole reading was freshness personified. In the Andante, Lukas Hagen permitted himself more vibrato and tonal opulence than we had previously heard from him; and, in the Agitato, Veronika Hagen did likewise with her viola, against the background of the muted other instruments. The final Variations, with their recollections of the work’s opening, were well differentiated.

The pizzicato movement from Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet, more delicately done than we usually hear it, made an apt encore. What a civilised pleasure it is to spend an evening eavesdropping on four musicians of this calibre.

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