This afternoon in Jordan Hall, Celebrity Series of Boston presented the Hagen Quartet in an exciting recital of three familiar quartets played with interest and excitement. Each stands out in its composer’s career as evidence of musical problems or challenges addressed.
The program opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet no.11 in F Minor, Op. 95, “Serioso” (1810). For Beethoven, the Serioso Quartet marks an expansion of harmonic language using especially the Neapolitan sixth chord to create a work that is unified as a quartet even as it is disjointed by the tension over the harmonic tonic (f or g-flat?). For Haydn, the Joke Quartet represents the merger of popular and recherché musical styles, combining memorable melody and catchy rhythm with the learned surprise of the ending tempo modulation and last iterations of the tune, which, phrase by phrase, is bracketed by silence. For Mozart, the musical challenge was to elevate the cello line while serving the pragmatic goal of securing funds, if not patronage, from the cello-playing Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Beyond the pivotal rôles each quartet played in its composer’s œuvre, each also expanded the horizons for all future string quartets, earning themselves status in the canon.
Magisterial performances by the Hagen Quartet brought these works to life. What’s more, they offered compelling renditions that made each seem fresh. The disjunctions of Beethoven’s Quartetto Serioso stood out through the pronounced use of legato and spiccato bow-strokes, coupled with widely contrasting and precisely executed hairpin dynamics in the opening Allegro con brio. The slower Allegretto ma non troppo continued the competition over the tonic key, with the cello beginning a scale seemingly in a remote key, the tender lyricism re-setting this scale into the earlier movement’s flirtation with Neapolitan sixth chords; the fugue continues the harmonic stretch and play before a return of the cello’s descending scalar passage. This leads directly to the Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, here rendered as an animated and highly playful scherzo. The lush Larghetto espressivo unfurled in all seriousness before the movement turned to the concluding, and flying, Allegretto agitato rondo. In this performance, a virtual violin concerto in Lukas Hagen’s hands, the movement scampered — serious without being stuffy.
In Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 33, no. 2,“The Joke” (1781), the Hagen Quartet combined clarity and verve. The rise in the opening theme of the Allegro moderato, cantabile expressed pathos and yearning, which quickly turned to the dashing play of spiccato notes and rapid runs. The Scherzo became a skittering lullaby, while the Largo sostenuto was sweetly tender with a playful character throughout. The Finale: Presto proceeded at a clip, with all its technical challenges brushed aside as mere bagatelles.
Following intermission, the Hagen Quartet returned to the stage for Mozart’s String Quartet no. 21 in D Major, K. 575, “Prussian” (1789). From the sotto voce opening of the Allegretto, as well as the Andante, this reading combined august dignity with clarity of tone, playfulness with seriousness. Respectful yet moving tempi kept this performance from becoming too heavy. The Menuetto remained a dance, agile and lively. The Allegretto finale combined arching melody with fast figures and rapid interchange of voices, all deftly executed. Each of these three works embodies disjoined musical ideas, yoked into a single work which becomes a meaningful and unified whole. The Hagen Quartet reveled in exploring and uniting these studied contrasts.
As encore, the audience heard the opening Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, op. 18, no. 1. Emphatic statement conspired with smooth legato melody and robust sound to encapsulate all that was so strikingly memorable about the afternoon’s recital, again delivered with ease and flair.