Hagen Quartet off to a flat start in Beethoven cycle at 92Y
Beethoven’s body of work amounts to one of the highest achievements of human culture. His music is great in every meaning of the word. Concerts that fail to capture that greatness are inescapably disappointing, and that was the experience of the opening night of the Hagen Quartet’s residency at 92Y, where they’ll be playing all of Beethoven’s string quartets over the next ten days, their first such cycle in North America.
The Hagen is an experienced, skillful group. They are known for everything from Mozart to Ligeti and have recorded several Beethoven quartets already: the bulk of the early Op. 18 pieces and most of the late quartets. The lineup for the opening concert was the Op. 18, No. 1 quartet followed by Op. 135 before intermission, concluding with the Op. 59, No. 1. All the music is in F major, and the early and late works share important formal features.
The Hagen’s familiarity and comfort with the music was clear from the general confident ease of their playing. They have a refined, unified sound, not big but attractive. What was missing was any significant thinking about the pieces, not only their relationship beyond the common key, but also their centrality in the Western classical tradition.
Op. 18, No. 1 was written seven years before the revolutionary Symphony No. 3, and already stretches the Classical style to the limit. What for Haydn would be an eight-bar phrase became, for his student, a wandering subject and complex musical line that would later be emulated by Mahler. The form is sonata-allegro, but the structure is exceptional: phrases that normally would end on cadences elide into further phrases, and melody and harmony develop simultaneously and, at times, independently.
Music like this is more than the notes, it’s a set of ideas about how to build something through time that’s aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally meaningful. The Hagen played it dutifully but without any expression of what might be interesting, nor even any idea that the phrases were part of an extended and surprising journey that would return home. Two of the constant features of Beethoven’s music, surprise and inevitability, just were not there.
That absence was disheartening in the Op. 135 quartet. The opening bars traverse a vast range of emotion in just a few seconds, there is a profound experience of being jostled from one condition to another through the accident of uncovering a memento from a difficult past. In this concert, the expression was cursory: on to the next thing.
The music is constantly distracted by reminiscences, puzzles, a shaft of sunlight. It should be fascinating and charming and then powerful, because it leads into music from the scherzo of the composer’s Symphony No. 9. In this concert, it was just a series of notes of no particular interest. There was no relief in the stolid way they played the lovely final movement.
The Vivace movement was indicative of the whole concert. The energy in Beethoven’s music comes from the way he uses accents and harmonic rhythms to create suspense with time. Without changing tempo or meter, his music creates tremendous tension by pushing the downbeat around to unstable positions in measures and phrases, then returns with satisfying finality. Not once did the Hagen exploit this feature, not even in this movement, built on some of the most coiled, explosive rhythmic accents in the entire literature.
After intermission, the Op. 59 quartet was agile and sleek, but troubled by the same problems. The structural freedom and rhythmic sense could not fight their way through musicians who ignored them. The proximate cause was the predominance give to first violinist Lukas Hagen: even as his instrument fell increasingly flat and he began to blur pitches, he left little room for the other instruments to speak.
Beethoven makes things happen through the interplay of all the voices, and the best playing – especially an involving recent cycle from the Pacifica Quartet and a memorable concert of late quartets by the Cypress Quartet – involves all the instruments prominently. In this concert, Lukas’ siblings Veronika and Clemens – violist and cellist – and second violinist Rainer Schmidt were a supporting cast.
It’s easy to listen to playing like this, and the audience responded with verve, but Beethoven is lost when his music is this easy. This was emulsified thinking with, to paraphrase Whitman, the received models of the parlor. There was no sense of greatness, no sense that Beethoven was a great composer, or what the Hagen thought made the music great, or even if they did.
The Hagen Quartet’s Beethoven cycle continues through November 17. 92y.org