Thursday, 25 August 2011

Salzburg Festival (4) - Hagen Quartet: Schubert, 23 August 2011

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

String Quartet in A minor, D 804, ‘Rosamunde’
String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’
String Quartet in G major, D 887

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (violins)
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Clemens Hagen (cello)


I could well understand the desire to perform Schubert’s final three quartets in the same concert. However, and I know that I was not alone in feeling this, there was a sense of diminishing returns by the end: a little too much of a marathon, to the detriment of the G major quartet, however finely performed. Sweltering heat in Salzburg certainly did not help; the Hagen Quartet could certainly not reasonably be held responsible for that. Nevertheless, I wondered whether performing the three quartets over two concerts, alongside a couple of other pieces, might have worked better.

That said, there was a great deal to admire, from the hushed, disquieting opening of the Rosamunde Quartet onwards. This A minor work received a dark, often violent reading, quite distinct from any complacent notions of the Biedermeier, the threat of fragmentation, especially in the first movement, always present yet never fulfilled. Adorno would surely have approved, for the Second Viennese School was brought even closer than usual to Schubert. The development’s febrile intensity, sometimes under and sometimes above the surface, enabled the recapitulation to emerge less as a return than as a second development, the coda almost as a third, albeit foreshortened and ultimately denied. I was less convinced by the second movement, whose tempo sounded more of an Allegretto than an Andante to me, though I realise that many will consider me terminally old-fashioned in that respect. The full tone of Clemens Hagen’s cello was sometimes undermined by the surprisingly low level (semi-skimmed?) vibrato above. Nevertheless, contrapuntal violence was magnificently achieved later on. The minuet exuded quiet menace. If only an intervening telephone had been quieter still, both here and in the finale. (The ringtone suggested that the culprit was one and the same.) Nevertheless, post-Mozartian grace and clarity – though by now, for Schubert, it is definitively post-Mozartian – enabled the music to smile through tears as well as calls. Mozartian perfection may no longer be possible, but there was a Beethovenian intensity of thematic working out to vie with that wistful necessity-cum-impossibility.

The darkness of Death and the Maiden’s opening rightly occluded the would-be jauntiness of the first movement’s second subject, which in any case would soon be utterly denied. And so, the movement continued: tragedy always having the upper hand, the purpose, if not the language, that of Beethoven. The celebrated slow movement set of variations was passionately tragic, yet never inappropriately so. The cello-led variation was a lyrical joy, though we always knew it could not last, the furious unisons of the ensuing third variation foreshadowing and arguably pre-emptively surpassing Bruckner. There were times, moreover, as in the fifth variation, when the players showed themselves unafraid to unleash a certain degree of ugliness akin to that of the Grosse Fuge. The scherzo’s drive indubitably owed a great deal to Beethoven’s example too, whilst the trio returned us to that post-Mozartian poise, tenderness, and vain hope expressed in the earlier quartet. The finale positioned itself, rightly, between those two tendencies, or rather veered between them, albeit with a lyricism, however strained, that was unmistakeably Schubert’s and Schubert’s alone.

If Bruckner had been occasionally present in the D minor Quartet, he almost became composer-in-residence for parts of the G major, the Seventh Symphony often coming to mind in the first movement’s melodic lines set against tremolos. The Hagens’ shaping of those melodies was of course crucial, and well-nigh faultless, likewise their appreciation of the sheer scale of Schubert’s canvas. That symphonic quality persisted into the slow movement, though melodic snatches and the give-and-take thereby necessitated underpinned the overwhelming motivic force. The scherzo was poised, as it should be, between Beethovenian gruffness and Mendelssohnian lightness, its formidable technical challenges navigated with aplomb, whilst the trio sounded as if a wistful echo of a time when one might still have danced carefree. Schubert’s finale emerged helter-skelter, yet anything but carefree, defiance and vulnerability held in necessarily uneasy confrontation.

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