Hagen Quartet shines subtly in belated Boston debut

February 27, 2012 at 6:38 am

By David Wright

The Hagen Quartet made its Boston debut Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall, presented by the Celebrity Series.

After waiting patiently for over 30 years, Boston finally received a visit from the much-lauded, much-recorded Hagen String Quartet Sunday afternoon, courtesy of the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Before a packed Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory, the Salzburg-based ensemble, founded in 1981, made its Boston debut with a program of bedrock Viennese repertoire that was partly serious, partly a joke, partly (but not mostly) Mozart—and all superbly realized.

Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, opening the program, proffering a calling card that was more bracing than endearing.  With fierce concentration, the four players barked out the terse first movement as if arguing among themselves with no audience present.

The enigmatic musings of the Allegretto, with its alternation of fugues and lyrical passages, at last allowed the Hagens’ silky, refined tone to bloom and waft into the house for the first time.  The “lively but serious” (Beethoven’s marking) quasi-scherzo and Presto finale completed the piece with a feeling of controlled power and buoyant rhythm.

Even in this rather hard-edged music, it was evident that the four players—consisting of siblings Lukas Hagen, first violin; Veronika Hagen, viola; and Clemens Hagen, cello; with Rainer Schmidt, second violin—had achieved a rare combination of matched and blended tone with transparent, persuasive voicing.  Their sound was not big and room-filling but seductive, enticing the listener to lean closer and savor every detail of the music.

Nowhere was that more true than in the group’s elegant, flexible rendering of the first movement of Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 “The Joke.”  First violinist Lukas Hagen shone here with a sweeter tone than in the Beethoven and with flashing staccato scales, but his siblings (real and metaphorical) held their own, making Haydn’s interplay of motives bubble like an animated family conversation.

Although the second movement has excited comment as one of Haydn’s earliest uses of the title “Scherzo,” the music itself is a pretty straightforward minuet, and the Hagens played it straight on Sunday.  In the trio, however, little slides between the first violin’s notes (not indicated in the score, but traditional) amusingly put lederhosen on the tune.  The Largo sostenuto movement was a study in sound textures from thin to rich and back again, beautifully gauged and sustained.

The Presto finale can be a hilarious romp that leads to a trick ending.  The Hagens’ performance sounded rushed and jerky, but not especially funny, and “The Joke” paid off only slightly at the end.  Sharp comic timing may not be among the ensemble’s many virtues.

Comedy doesn’t figure much in Mozart’s Quartet in D major, K. 575, a piece composed for a king—of Prussia, no less.  Mozart occasionally features the cello, the king’s own instrument, and in general opens up the quartet texture with agreeably operatic melodies and ensembles.

The Salzburgers played their compatriot’s tunes, ornaments, mini-variations, and dialogues with unfailing imagination and elegance—and always that silken, seamless tone, as if one instrument were playing instead of four.  The opening Allegretto was notable for the smooth, steady tempo that allowed Mozart’s melodic inspirations to unfold with ease; the second movement for endless subtleties of voicing and the tender fade of diminuendo; the minuet for its light-as-air beat and variety of touch; and the Allegretto finale for the cello’s prominent role—especially when Clemens Hagen’s instrument popped a tuning peg mid-movement, and the finale had to be started over, providing a welcome, unplanned encore.

The official encore was the first movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, a concise piece that manages to showcase almost everything that’s wonderful about a string quartet: the power, the intellectual dialogue, the flashy scales, the little flirtations, the readiness for anything.  The audience applauded enthusiastically but not raucously, as if still reflecting on the deeply rewarding afternoon of music it had just experienced.

The next classical concert of the Celebrity Series of Boston will be the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Joshua Bell, music director and solo violin, at Symphony Hall, 3 p.m. Sunday, April 15.  celebrityseries.org. 617-482-6661.

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