A lively crowd filled Jordan Hall on Saturday as the Hagen Quartet (Hagen siblings: Lukas (violin), Veronika (viola), Clemens (cello) along with Rainer Schmidt (violin)) made its second appearance in the Celebrity Series of Boston with Schubert’s Quartet in A Minor, D. 804, Rosamunde, Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Opus 5, and Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Opus 131. The musical material ranged from stunning to hectic to downright thrilling. Staples of the repertoire, each of the three works maintains a solemnity of its own within its styles of musical rhetoric and technical execution, yet a covert continuity spoke to an elusive metaphysical unity.
The renowned Salzburgers began with Schubert’s 1824 A Minor masterpiece using the Rosamunde theme in the 2nd Andante movement which he originally composed as part of the incidental music for a play of that name that marked one of the composer’s theatrical failures. This work and its subsequent sibling (“Death and the Maiden” Quartet) expressed immense depth of musical sorrows which have been reflected in the composer’s own personal life, more haunting and wistful than one could expect of a 27-year-old. Veronika, Clemens and Rainer delicately start Allegro ma non troppo accompaniment with a solemn air of nostalgia. The second violin plays a pattern that sounds eerily similar to the oscillating accompaniment in one of Schubert’s most well-known songs, the opus two “Gretchen am Spinnrade” from 1814. Also one of the most prominent traits of this ensemble radiates immediately into the acoustically pleasing Jordan Hall – sublime control of the musical material, dynamics and phrasing. No wonder, as they’ve been playing this piece together (probably) since Rainer joined the group in 1987. The performance was so outstanding that multiple audience members decided to chime in with masterful antiphonal coughing coming either from the balcony or the orchestra seats. This infectious counterpoint did nothing to deter the foursome from delivering their archetypical sound quality, ensemble playing and commitment to composer’s ideas.
Webern’s hectic, scurrying 5 movements from 1909, which Rudolf Kolisch called “expressionistic miniatures,” reminds one of of Schoenberg while at the same time giving evidence of breaking free from the norms of older quartet literature. The first movement, written in sonata form with its classic thematic contrast, is truly distorted as if trying to push the boundaries of how rough a string quartet can sound. The Hagen went the extra mile in expressing its jumpiness, wide leaps, extreme changes of tempo and dynamics. Two exceedingly slow, quiet pieces follow, each 13 bars long. One can hear Webern exploring new sonic possibilities. The performers have to take on a challenge of Webern’s highly distilled language with directions such as with mute, on the bridge and col legno. The closing movement sounds a gloomy epilogue, resembling the first movement in its variety of contrasting textures, although they resist unification. Phrases built from microscopic elements and crystalline gestures characterize the entire piece. They no longer observe metrical bar-lines; they are static sonic images, favoring dissonant intervals such as the tritone and major seventh in their melodic shaping and harmony, refuting conventional string sound and fluctuating between brutally aggressive and barely audible, vanishing whispers.
During the intermission the audience had seemingly recovered from a contagious coughing epidemic which of course tended to increase in slow, quiet moments creating a sort of avalanche of unwanted cacophony; now they were ready to embark on a journey through a truly demanding masterpiece. Built in seven continuous movements, Beethoven’s own favorite among his late output, opus 131 stands a world apart from polite, four-movement template that Beethoven inherited from Haydn and Mozart. The first movement, marked “Slow, but not rushed, and very expressive,” provides an entry point to the Hagen Quartet’s wonders to come. The last lingering C sharp rises without a fuss to the neighboring D, and the second movement begins at a pianissimo dynamic. The formidably refined artistry of the musicians controlled the attention of the audience throughout the entirety of the complex program. The four musicians delivered their parts with complete mastery, flexibility, balance. Undeniably, their ensemble togetherness and their virtuosic ability to steer and balance expressivity with control sets them apart.