Thursday, 27 November 2008

Haydn - Hagen Quartet, 26 November 2008

Wigmore Hall

Haydn – String Quartet in B-flat major, Op.76 no.4, ‘Sunrise’
Haydn – String Quartet in D major, Op.76 no.5
Haydn – String Quartet in E-flat major, Op.76 no.6

Lukas Hagen (violin)
Rainer Schmidt (violin)
Veronika Hagen (violin)
Clemens Hagen (violoncello)

The Wigmore Hall is presenting all of Haydn’s string quartets from Op.20 onwards over its 2008-9 season, a laudable contribution to next year’s bicentenary celebrations. The Hagen Quartet had performed the first three Op.76 quartets the previous evening; here were the last three. These were fine performances indeed, which served to heighten my regret that I had been unable to attend the first concert.

The celebrated ‘sunrise’ opening of no.4 was arrestingly caught, at least as much so upon the exposition repeat: quite an achievement, given that everyone would by then know what to expect. Light vibrato – something mysteriously withheld, as in the ‘Representation of Chaos’ –from the three lower parts contrasted with Lukas Hagen’s rapt first violin solo. Thereafter, the music sprang into Haydnesque life. I marvelled anew at the concision of the exposition, indeed of the first movement as a whole, and appreciated once again how this music truly represents a conversation of equals. Haydn’s quartets are so much more than this, but they remain music of supreme civilisation: monuments to the most noble aspirations of the Enlightenment. The life with which the Hagens invested their performance put me in mind of a passage from Furtwängler’s notebooks, ‘I have always devoted a great deal of thought to the word vital. It is a word of intellectuals for intellectuals … Mozart and Beethoven are not vital, but simply beautiful, great, good, what they want to be. What highly praised modern art expresses: Vitalität.’ I am not entirely sure that I agree with Furtwängler, but the important point is that there was no secondary Vitalität here, but the inner life of the music allowed Haydn simply to be and to speak for himself. ‘Imitative’ entries were never merely imitative; they always brought something new and thereby found their place in the work as it developed over time. The purity of tone with which the Adagio opened epitomised the (neo-)Classical ideal, as trumpeted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, of ‘noble simplicity and calm greatness’. Yet even more important was the sense of ongoing development, edging towards the Schoenbergian ideal of developing variation. The players were flexible, though never lax. Their attention to dynamic distinctions, especially in the lower dynamic range, was most praiseworthy in its expressive consequences. The minuet was fast – it is marked Allegro – but not rushed. Nor was it inflexible, as can often be the case in modern performances of eighteenth-century music; indeed, it evinced a winning swing. The trio, by contrast, was splendidly rustic, almost Bartókian at the extraordinary drone opening. If I had minor reservations, they related to the finale, in which the opening sounded a touch too delicately manicured: Furtwängler’s Vitalität perhaps trumped life. The B-flat minor episode might have benefited from a touch more Sturm und Drang, yet the Hagens’ relative restraint ensured that mere ‘effect’ was not the order of the day. And the precision with which the movement gathered momentum was mesmerising, even if it were bought at the expense of an equally valid wildness.

Lukas Hagen once again made his mark on the very opening of no.5, imprinting the ease of its siciliano rhythm upon our – and the quartet’s – consciousnesses. I was struck by the true sense of discovery, almost Newtonian, as the movement’s tonal plan unfolded; modulations were always infused with the greatest understanding and meaning. Once again, all parts teemed with life. The rare – in every sense – F-sharp major tonality of the slow movement ensured, along with the performance, that this would be the still centre of the work. The Hagens drew upon a seemingly infinite dynamic palette with extraordinary expressive care. Every modulation was an event yet also part of a greater plan: shades again of the Newtonian universe as celebrated in Haydn’s own Creation. This movement was, quite simply, sublime: in an eighteenth-century and a modern sense. A graceful minuet followed, underlining the care with which the players distinguished apparently ‘similar’ movements in different works. Clemens Hagen relished his especial opportunity to shine in the trio. With the moto perpetuo of the finale, we moved into an almost Figaro-like world of joy: fun, lively, but never breathless. (Think Colin Davis rather than those who would subject Classical music to the perverse indignities currently favoured in some quarters.)

The sixth Op.76 quartet is perhaps the crown of the set, although every work remains of course a jewel. Its first movement was characterised by a well-nigh perfect combination of delicacy and intellectual control. Haydn displayed to us his learning and his wit. So did the performers: both his and theirs. Bach inevitable came to mind, and not only in the final, fugal variation. The second movement brought both warmth of initial tonality and a splendidly exploratory nature to the subsequent tonal plan. Some modulations sounded almost Schubertian in their heart-stopping magic: such tonal daring! The minuet was properly scherzo-like (it is marked Presto), exuding a great sense of fun, not least in the danger and precision of its skipping intervals. This music truly looked forward to Beethoven. The mastery of both composer and performers was once again displayed in the trio’s counterpoint. And with the reprise of the minuet, the wit of slight agogic exaggerations reminded us that the music should not sound quite the same the second time around. The final Allegro spiritoso was just that: an archetypal ‘Haydn finale’. Rhythmic and harmonic momentum were as one. The surprising loud chords of the development section were expertly judged in their voicing. Both composer and performers played with our expectations – and won, hands down.