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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 (1825) [33.43]
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [41.16]
Hagen String Quartet
rec. Nov 2003, Schloss Mondsee (Op. 132); Mar 2004, Minnesgångersaal, Wiesbach (Op. 127)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5705 [75.07]


In 1822 Beethoven received a request for three string quartets from Prince Nicholas Galitsin. The first of these works, Op. 127 in E flat, was not completed until 1825, the year of the Ninth Symphony. This work has been well described as 'Beethoven's crowning monument to lyricism' (Joseph Kerman).

The first movement has a wonderful, lilting principal theme that dominates the development of the material. It is introduced by a majestic statement which recurs at crucial points as the main movement proceeds. The Hagen Quartet set out their stall in this music, immediately revealing that their performances will hold abundant interest. The quality of the sound and of the recording too is first rate, and the textures are conveyed with the utmost clarity. This potency informs the music in significant and subtle ways, and the attention to the detail of the dynamics is another notable feature of the performances. For this is chamber music of the utmost refinement which communicates powerfully too, whenever intensity develops. If this attention to detail seems worthy of special comment, it is not to suggest that the approach is mannered. It is simply that the scores contain such riches that the finest performers can always bring something special to them.

The Op. 132 Quartet was also commissioned by Prince Galitsin and completed two years later. The music typifies Beethoven's achievement in his ‘late quartets’. For the content is balanced and integrated, but at the same time extremely varied, allowing the projection of a most distinctive personality. It is a work of genius which extends beyond the confines of the classical string quartet’s traditional procedures.

In truth it is best to consider the first movement as an exploration of its material, phase by phase, beginning with the searching and expressive slow introduction. The pensive atmosphere is broken by a flurry of semiquavers from the first violin, setting up a passionate and intense Allegro, and these varying characteristics are projected fluently, naturally and dramatically by the Hagen Quartet. The careful articulation of the slow introduction goes out of its way to communicate the importance of the material on the larger scale, with subtle changes of note value as the music proceeds.

The second movement is an equivalent of the old minuet-and-trio, but the treatment and the playing have an intensity of vision that transcends that of the dance.

For all the qualities of the other parts of the work, the heart of the Op. 132 Quartet lies in its slow movement. Beethoven gave this music an unequivocal title: Hymn of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. The music therefore has very personal associations, although it is not in any sense self-pitying. Two interludes bring the relief of faster tempi from the prevailing Adagio, and over the first of these Beethoven wrote the words 'feeling new strength'. This sudden outburst of joy anticipates the world of the Ninth Symphony, but perhaps the Hagen performance makes too little of this change of focus, as though the players are committed above all to the projection of unity.

That caveat apart, these are performances to challenge all comers in the catalogue, and with the benefit of the best modern sound.

Terry Barfoot








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