Hagen Quartet digs deep in Beethoven, Schubert and Webern

March 24, 2019 at 11:41 am

By Andrew J. Sammut

The Hagen Quartet performed Saturday night at Jordan Hall, presented by the Celebrity Series.

The Hagen Quartet performed Saturday night at Jordan Hall, presented by the Celebrity Series.

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, the Hagen Quartet’s concert at NEC’s Jordan Hall on Saturday night featured three works that probethe formal and emotional depths of the string quartet.

The Salzburg-based group of siblings Lukas (first violin), Veronika (viola) and Clemens (cello) Hagen and Rainer Schmidt (second violin) played with a restraint and lyricism that heightened the melancholy and tonal curiosity of these works, starting with Schubert’s Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804, “Rosamunde.”

Schubert’s wrote this first mature quartet in 1824 while suffering from the illness that would claim his life four years later. He had lost touch with many friends, been romantically rejected and recently given up his dream of being an opera composer. This quartet takes its name from the second movement’s use of music from one of Schubert’s several failed stage works.

Rather than wallowing in misery, the Hagen Quartet conveyed calm dejection through moderate tempos and discreet yet moving dynamics. The spinning accompaniment in the opening Allegro ma non troppo wound with subtle tension. The two violinists played with differentiated tones: Lukas Hagen bright and slightly cool, Rainer Schmidt grainy and assertive in solos. The group phrased and expressed as one, without the need for many gestures or overt glances.

The Hagen members highlighted Schubert’s harmonic imagination in the second movement, its genteel melody unveiling shades of dissonance. Schubert’s ironically brooding Menuetto borrows from his setting of Goethe’s words “Fair world, where are you?” in his song Die Götter Griechenlands. The quartet’s slightly detached approach and Clemens Hagen’s burry cello against glistening violins whispered like a man looking back at elegant soirees through a bitter lens. Yet the upbeat Trio was instantaneously warm. The concluding Allegro moderato is a major-key burst of joy, and the Hagens brought a sense of controlled abandon further revealing Schubert’s creativity.

Early Romanticism was followed by the beginnings of atonalism in Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Opus 5, written shortly after formal studies with Schoenberg and during a prolific compositional period in 1909.

The Hagen Quartet forged an exciting and textured narrative from a harmonic system that can often seem merely jarring. The first scene showed off their sheer precision with pinpoint pizzicato and fast, tight pyramids of notes. Veronika Hagen’s soulful viola and the group’s metallic sheen in the second scene invoked mystery. The racing third scene captured Webern’s humor as well as the quartet’s attention to detail, while the spacious fourth scene nearly stopped time. The meticulously paced final scene, with its mournful cello song, was like the exhausted end to a long journey—all within a span barely ten minutes.

The second half of the concert was given over to Beethoven’s favorite quartet, widely considered the culmination of his life’s work. He wrote the Quartet in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, while extremely ill, having been completely deaf for several years and with relations with his beloved nephew at an all-time low. The composer finished it in 1826, less than a year before his death and it made for audacious closure: the standard separate four-movement format was replaced with seven continuous movements that range across an array of sentiments and keys, all within a startlingly unified whole.

Opus 131 also starts unusually, with a fugue delivered by the Hagen in a steady, gradual tempo and with illuminating purity of timbre. The Hagen’s slight ritardandos and soft vibrato in the upbeat Allegro molto vivace gave the impression of a happy memory interrupted by present day struggles. The brief third movement recitative sounded perfunctory before the expressive fourth movement’s theme and variations. Without losing sight of Beethoven’s story, this was an opportunity to savor the beautiful tone and lush sweep of the group, including ornate cadences from Lukas Hagen in the opening theme and the placid Adagio variation.

Brusque strokes and a slight push in the playful fifth movement Presto kept the work’s overarching mood clear alongside humorous plucks and bouncing octaves. The sixth movement was as mournful as the last was merry. Then the quartet burst into the closing Allegro’s forceful first subject and passionate, aria-like second theme.

Issues with pitch here and elsewhere during this concert notwithstanding, the Hagen Quartet knew how much heat to apply and where to turn it up. An unrelenting sense of unity and effective pacing throughout the evening allowed them to indulge in gritty playing for the coda. The final note seemed to end the concert on a menacing question of tonality and mortality.

Celebrity Series of Boston will present the San Francisco Symphony with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff in a program of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and the conductor’s Agnegram 5 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-2595

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