Saturday 31 January 2015

Hagen Quartet - Mozart, 28 January 2015

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.20 in D major, KV 499, ‘Hoffmeister’
String Quartet no.21 in D major, KV 575
String Quartet no.22 in B-flat major, KV 589

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

The first movement of the Hoffmeister Quartet immediately had one aware of Haydn’s influence, though never at the expense of Mozart’s personality. In a commendably flexible reading, the Hagen Quartet made one listen – and such listening would be richly rewarded. Greater intensity was always musically grounded. The development section did what it should: developed – which is far from always the case. Its brevity could be fully respected. Twin imperatives of proportion and goal-orientation were well balanced throughout. The Menuet immediately announced itself as such in its tempo and more broadly in its style. (One knows a minuet when one hears it, and should never trouble oneself with Beckmesser-ish queries about what is ‘correct’.) Discreet portamenti were most welcome, as was the sinuous line of Lukas Hagen’s first violin. A splendidly conversational Allegretto might have sounded fast in isolation, but made perfect sense in relation to what had gone before and what would come after. The slow movement was poised, well shaped, intelligently played; what I missed was greater warmth. Here, the Hagens’ sensibility seemed closer to Haydn, even to early Beethoven, at least at times. Nevetherless, the stature and seriousness of Mozart’s music came across. The developmental quality of the finale was well conveyed. Again, Haydn – here again, in welcome fashion – loomed large but not overwhelmingly. Crucially, we continued to be compelled to listen.

Another D major work ensued, the first of Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ quartets, KV 575. From its opening, we were enabled to appreciate its very different character: more ‘operatic’, for want of a better word, the instruments sounding not just as soloists but as characters. Early on, solos from Veronika Hagen’s viola and Clemens Hagen’s cello – this was, after all, written with the cello-playing Frederick William II in mind – proved aurally arresting, but everyone would have his or her say. This is decidedly ‘late’ Mozart, but it was decidedly warm too. There is not a spare note; nor did it sounds as if there were. The Andante likewise proved as tightly-knit as anything in Beethoven, yet such concision proved in no sense at odds with expansive tendencies. The Menuetto similarly combined concision and flow. Its Allegretto rightly relaxing just a little, the cello solo an especial joy. In the finale, we heard again a heightened sense of operatic ‘character’ and conversation, whether à 4, or in almost any combination.

The B-flat Quartet, KV 589, offered melodic delight from the outset: above all, of course, from the cello, but far from exclusively so. The many virtues of the two earlier performances were to be heard once again, yet there was equal sensitivity to the particular ‘voice’ of this work. This was certainly no ‘one size fits all’ approach to Mozart. His perfect – I was about to add ‘well-nigh’, and realised there was no need – balance of harmony and counterpoint was again something in which to rejoice; so were the particularities of melody and indeed harmony. A poised, cultivated slow movement followed. Perhaps it was on the cool side when compared with, say, the Amadeus Quartet, but this remained a variegated reading which, crucially, imparted a sense of refined reflection upon the earlier world of Salzburg serenades. There was certainly little to be rued with respect to warmth or sweetness in the Menuetto: pretty much ideal, not just in terms of tone, but also harmonic understanding. A nicely busy trio, with a particularly noteworthy second violin solo from Rainer Schmidt, helped fully realise the Beethovenian scale of this extraordinary movement as a whole. Performance of the finale was learned yet insouciant – like the score itself. It was loved, but not too much.