In 1938, the 92nd Street Y, on New York's Upper East Side, invited audiences to the first complete presentation of Beethoven's 16 string quartets with this advertisement: "If you are a musician, you will appreciate the importance of this announcement — if not, just ask any real musician and you will be convinced."
75 years later, the importance of that announcement remains undiminished; the Hagen Quartet's rare appearance in New York to present the complete quartets of Beethoven is a significant event in the New York classical season. Formed in Salzburg in 1981 by the four Hagen siblings — Lukas (violin), Angelika (violin, now replaced by Rainer Schmidt), Veronika (viola), and Clemens (cello) — the Hagen Quartet has earned its reputation as one of Europe's great ensembles with their rich and immensely detailed performances. On Saturday I was in attendance as they performed the fifth of a six-concert cycle at the 92nd Street Y's Kaufmann Concert Hall, offering two quartets from Beethoven's early-period Opus 18 (Nos. 2 and 4), and the monumental late quartet Opus 131.
Beethoven completed his six string quartets of Opus 18 in 1801, and their witty optimism and classical structure are an outgrowth of the genre mastered by his teacher, Joseph Haydn. The Hagen Quartet gave a captivating yet introverted performance of Op. 18 No. 2, drawing the audience into their world with a reading full of lyricism and spontaneity.
Many contemporary quartets place the focus of their sound on the virtuoso first violinist or a dominant cello sound; It is refreshing to hear an ensemble so thoughtfully balanced from the inner voices. The rich tone of 2nd violinist Rainer Schmidt and violist Veronika Hagen created a unified, transparent sound that brought out the many charming details of Beethoven's early works.
As intimate and graceful as these pieces appear, they reveal Beethoven's inner turmoil as he began to realize, at the age of 27, that he was losing his hearing. The more tumultuous Op. 18 No. 4 foreshadows Beethoven's later work, and the Hagen Quartet expertly balanced the raw emotion and urgency characteristic of Beethoven with the grace and elegance of the Viennese tradition.
More than anything it was this rich Viennese tradition on display Saturday night. Throughout the evening you felt as if you were being invited to share in the tradition of the great masters. The Hagen Quartet played with supreme ease and confidence; not with swagger, but with the conviction that this is their tradition, their music.
After intermission the performers gave a visceral account of the Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131; this was Beethoven's own favorite of his quartets, and is one of the great works in all of Western music. Its seven movements, played without pause, contain the intensity and depth of emotion characteristic of Beethoven's late style. What sets the Hagen Quartet apart from their peers is their wide range of color and texture. Their expressive and often sparing use of vibrato heightens these intense emotions: it is rich and refined in the melancholy Adagio that opens Op. 131, and almost completely absent in the bracing final movement.
Countless traversals of the Beethoven quartet cycle have appeared in New York since the Budapest String Quartet presented them in 1938, and the Hagen Quartet's performances this month stand out among them as an alluringly personal display of this rich tradition and history.
Matt Beckmann is a freelance cellist based in the New York City area.