The Hagen Quartet Returns
And brings more Beethoven with them
by James Leonard
From the February, 2012 issue
I was wrong. Folks who've read my reviews for the last twenty-eight years may be surprised to hear that. Not surprised that I was wrong: given my emphatic opinions, by now my being wrong is likely a given, and considering my tone of infallibility, the surprise may be that I'd ever acknowledge being wrong.
Nevertheless I admit I was wrong in my review of the Hagen Quartet ten years ago. After describing their recorded performances as ardently expressive, I predicted they might choose to impose that quality on the two late Beethoven quartets on their program and that "the result could be disastrous."
Then came the Hagen's performance, followed by their recording of the works a few years later, and that was it. I was indubitably wrong. Not about the Hagen Quartet: they delivered extremely passionate performances, and much else besides, including lithe lyricism, relentless rhythms, and rigorous musical intelligence. Their performances weren't disastrous; they were exciting, exhilarating, and deeply rewarding.
What I was wrong about was Beethoven, a much more grievous offense. I now realize that to say that ardent expressivity isn't a quality found in his late quartets is as wrong as to say it can't be found in his early or middle quartets--or in any of his other music for that matter. And as if to prove that point, the Hagen Quartet is returning to Rackham Auditorium on February 23 with three more quartets by the little big man from Bonn, each more ardently expressive than the last.
It's been thirty years since siblings Lukas (violin), Veronika (viola), and Clemens (cello) founded the Hagen Quartet in 1981--violinist Rainer Schmidt joined a few years later. For their anniversary season, they're touring with Beethoven's F major quartet from 1801, his E-flat major quartet from 1809, and his F minor quartet from 1810. The F major has an Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato that would make a stone weep, while the E-flat major has an Adagio ma non troppo that could
make the sky cry. And the F minor is full of all the qualities one associates with Beethoven in his Appassionata key: opening with a furious Allegro con brio, moving through an intense Allegretto ma non troppo, followed by a restless Allegro assai vivace, and closing with a despondent Larghetto espressivo that shifts gears to a driving Allegretto agitato that builds to an Allegro coda releasing all the quartet's energy in a burst of giddy joy.
When the Hagen Quartet returns on February 23, I expect they'll be ardently expressive, as well as lithely lyrical, relentlessly rhythmic, and rigorously musical. And I expect I won't be wrong again.
[Originally published in February, 2012.]
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