BEETHOVEN String Quartets 127+132 Hagen

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LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Streichquartette
String Quartets
op. 127 · op. 132
Hagen Quartett
Int. Release 01 Aug. 2005
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CD DDD 0289 477 5705 4 GH


Thoughtful performances that stand up well against recent competition.
The Hagens seem to take nothing for granted, thinking afresh about each tempo and, in almost every bar, what style of expression, what tone colour to adopt . . . [an] important aspect of the performances is the way in which they draw us into Beethoven's emotional world through the sheer beauty of the playing, and the way each detail is particularised . . . I'm sure the Hagen Quartet will kindle or reinvigorate your enthusiasm for this wonderful music.

As ever, the Hagen follow their own path in these works, seemingly reinventing the music as they go. The first thing that strikes you is the close recording, bringing the players right into your living-room . . . Though this music is obviously in their bones, there's a terrific sense of re-creation in their playing. The Scherzo of the same quartet is not merely twinkling and puckish, there's a palpable sense of excitement coming through the speakers. And in the finale, they can hardly contain themselves . . . The Fifteenth is another terrific performance. I particularly like the way that the Hagen never prettify the music, and use vibrato very much as a means of expression, never more effectively than in the central "Heiliger Dankgesang", which is prayerful but never self-indulgent. That's followed by a strikingly swift "All Marcia" and then the most graceful finale imaginable . . . there's a thought-provoking essay that probes as deeply as these performances.

I have admired this ensemble's intelligent, sharply focused performances for years. I just don't know if I can wait until the holidays to hear them dig into Op 132!

Though strikingly individual in many respects, this is a commanding release. For one thing, it offers as fine a sonic image of a string quartet as I have ever encountered . . . the group sounds as if it is in one's room rather than in a small hall, permitting an exceptional clarity of each voice and of the polyphonic texture. Doubtless, this is as much a tribute to the players themselves as to the superior engineering . . . these are tough aggressive readings, assertive in their slashing fortes and eruptive observance of the music's dynamic contrasts. Tempos in outer movements have an extroverted insistence . . . In addition to its beautifully delineated voicing, the group produces a tone whose purity is sometimes redolent of period instruments, a feature that seems ideally suited to some of this music's more otherworldly passages. . . . it promotes anticipation of those to come.

These musicians have steadily been purifying the tone of their vibrato in recent years, when performing the Classical repertory . . . The recording quality throughout the disc is excellent.

Ein unmissverständliches Statement, gleich zu Beginn: So gerade, so schnell und mit so schneidender Klarheit hat man die Akkorde am Anfang von Beethovens Quartett op. 127 noch nicht gehört. Entschlackung ist Programm beim Hagen-Quartett . . . Trotz subtiler klanglicher Detailarbeit und radikaler Entschlackungskur ist die Aufnahme indes alles andere als kühl geraten. Im Gegenteil, kaum jemand sonst spielt das Rezitativ vor dem Finale des a-Moll-Quartetts so frei und hitzig wie die Hagens, bei denen die unübertroffene Kunst des feinstjustierten Ensemblespiels nie zum Selbstzweck wird, sondern immer dem Streben nach Expressivität und einer breiten Farbpalette untergeordnet ist. Mit dem aufgeregt vorandrängenden Rezitativ der Violine mündet das Quartett in ein äußerst expressives Finale, das zugleich auch das Finale einer im besten Sinne aufregenden Aufnahme ist. Spannender kann Kammermusik, kann auch Beethoven nicht sein.

. . . ein luzides Klangbild von einer gelegentlich fast gläsernen, fragilen Durchsichtigkeit des Liniengefüges . . . Beethoven-Wiedergaben von exemplarischem Rang.

Beethovens ungebremst individuell quellende Aussagen, die sich in keine übliche Form pressen lassen, fanden Ausdruck in vielen seiner Werke. Als glänzendes Beispiel höre man sich den 3. Satz op. 132 der vorliegenden CD an und man wird eine vom Traditionellem losgelöste, dafür aber affektgeballte musikalische Anordnung vorfinden. Das Salzburger Hagen Quartett, in Klangqualität und Intonation auf höchstem Niveau, weiß namentlich in diesem Satz mit sensiblem Gespür Maßstäbe zu setzen, wie überhaupt das zielsichere Eintauchen der Künstler in den unermesslichen Kosmos der späten Beethoven-Quartette spannendste Interpretationsergebnisse garantiert.

. . . una escucha a ciegas de este disco los revelaría a ellos como los únicos intérpretes posibles . . . la colosal energía e intensidad que saben transmitir a sus interpretaciones. La manera de acentuar, de resaltar con incisividad a veces inaudita determinadas notas, es, sin duda alguna, una de sus señas de identidad . . .. Toma de sonido memorable.


Modernism and Humanism

According to Nanette Streicher, who was friendly with Beethoven during his final years, the composer resembled "a beggar he was so dirty in his dress". The picture of the composer to which she contributed continues to dog us to this day. We see him as hopelessly unkempt in his appearance, a man who in 1825 was erroneously arrested for vagrancy and who regarded himself as "misunderstood" and as "hounded on all sides like a wild animal". It was, it seems, in a state of isolation, cut off from the rest of the world, that he composed his most demanding and inaccessible works, namely, his late string quartets. In writing them, he no longer took any account of the spirit of his times or of his audience's receptivity: the only thing that still counted for him was to advance the course of music.

But this picture is not entirely correct. In the first place, Beethoven was not simply an eccentric at the end of his life. He was also a European celebrity. When Prince Nikolas Borisovich Galitzin wanted to make contact with the composer in November 1822, it was enough for him to write from St Petersburg and address his letter "A Monsieur Louis van Bethoven a Viennes": the letter reached its destination without difficulty. Galitzin was an amateur cellist and an ardent admirer of Beethoven's. Indeed, his enthusiasm went so far that he even arranged and performed an inauthentic string quartet based on material from three of Beethoven's existing works, the "Waldstein" Sonata op. 53, the Piano Sonata op. 7 and the Cello Sonata op. 69. But such arrangements could not satisfy the prince in the longer term, and so in his letter he asked the composer to write a set of new and original quartets, for which he was prepared to pay whatever Beethoven demanded. It was with a certain self-assurance that the composer asked for the vast sum of fifty ducats for each quartet, promising to deliver the first work by the middle of March of the following year. In the event, this deadline came and went, as Beethoven first had to complete two other major works, his Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis. Not until March 1825 was Beethoven able to send the first of the Galitzin quartets - the String Quartet in Eflat major op. 127 - to St Petersburg.

This was the first string quartet that Beethoven had written for twelve years. If Galitzin had commissioned some other kind of work - a piano sonata, some incidental music or a patriotic cantata -, it seems more than likely that Beethoven would have responded just as readily. It is thanks to the personal taste of Galitzin and other patrons, therefore, that the composer's string quartets became his crowning achievement. It is above all in the eyes of posterity that these works have acquired the character of an artistic legacy - not that this in any way impairs their artistic quality. Here we find Beethoven as an emphatically forward-looking artist, not content to keep on repeating successful formulas but exploring new boundaries and giving them musical expression. As a result, his late quartets no longer illustrate his typical triumph over all opposition in a spirit of per aspera ad astra, but constitute an experiment with forms and sounds.

In his search for something radically new, Beethoven produced in his op. 127 String Quartet a kind of weightless rhapsodizing, the four voices singing with a freedom unusual in such a work. Often we barely know in which section of a sonata movement we are, and even the set of variations that makes up the second movement and that in other works of this kind is usually clearly ordered appears remarkably - and attractively - wayward. In this way we witness the dissolution of what are essentially timeless musical forms. At the same time, there are other passages in the work where Beethoven has forged new and surprising links, notably when the opening movement's first subject reappears unexpectedly in the rondo-form Finale. Evidently it is impossible to count even on Beethoven's destructive tendencies.
A whole series of parallels exists between Beethoven's op. 127 String Quartet and the String Quartet in Aminor op. 132 that dates from 1824/5 and that was similarly written for Prince Galitzin. In both works, the slow movements are the longest, and in both cases, too, there are dance movements of peculiar contrapuntal density. But the greatest similarity between them lies in the vocal nature of their writing, a feature that emerges to particularly striking effect in the Ninth Symphony, another of the works from Beethoven's late period. Here it seems as if the instruments on their own can no longer convey the composer's intentions and express his enthusiasm, which is why the human voice enters in a passage of recitative that leads into the final chorus, "Freude, schöner Götterfunke". This same kind of musical humanism is also found in the late quartets, especially in the penultimate movement of the op. 132 String Quartet, where a stylized instrumental recitative imitates the sound of a singing human voice. Throughout this quartet the vocal element is virtually omnipresent, most notably in the opening movement, long sections of which are like a moving lament.

Even today, Beethoven's late quartets create a tremendously modern impression in terms of their structure and expression, yet ultimately what they express most of all is their creator's private world of emotion. This human aspect is particularly clear from the slow movement of the Aminor String Quartet op. 132, headed "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode". Nor is there any doubt about the identity of the convalescent in this programmatical movement: it is, of course, Beethoven himself. In the spring of 1825 he succumbed to an "inflammation of the intestines" that was treated by means of a diet that for the composer meant a large number of sacrifices and that included unseasoned soup, hot chocolate instead of coffee and eggs without any seasoning. Beethoven complained bitterly about this regimen but finally recovered his health again after a number of weeks.

The religiously otherworldly Lydian mode of the third movement tells of the patient's boundless relief, while its archaic austerity expresses both distance and an acceptance of God's will, two attributes repeatedly found in Beethoven's late works. Here we come upon a basic message of these late quartets: the outward neglect of the elderly composer is not just the sign of a lack of self-discipline but is at least as much an indication of his espousal of the transcendental and of pure musical substance.
Tobias Möller
5/2005