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Mozart and Schubert: Hagen Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 30.1.2011 (MB)


Mozart – String Quartet no.16 in E-flat major, KV 428/421b

Schubert – String Quartet no.13 in A minor, D 804, ‘Rosamunde’


What could be more civilised than a couple of great Classical string quartets as a Wigmore Sunday morning Coffee Concert? The present performance formed part of the Hagen Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary series. The Hagens clearly have no intention of resting on their well-deserved laurels, however, for their performance of Mozart’s E-flat quartet, KV 428/421b, seemed determined to undermine the idea of mere ‘civilisation’. Not that there was anything crude, or Romantic; if anything, it proved quite the opposite, exuding a sense of serious restraint. One might argue that such an impression of effort was apposite; Mozart famously struggled to bring all six of his Haydn Quartets to perfection, in a way quite at odds with the general, not entirely unjustified, perception of free inspiration and invention. Yet I am not sure, and was not convinced by this rendition, that ‘effortful’ is ever really a word one should apply to Mozart in performance. What I missed was the ‘smile’ that Messiaen so wisely ascribed to Mozart’s music. (The French composer even composed a 1991 anniversary tribute, Un sourire.)

That said, there was much to admire, not least the varied use of vibrato, never dogmatic and clearly well thought out, even if my own taste would be for a slightly higher optimum level. Slightly muted sonorities were perhaps also to a certain extent a product of the work’s tonal frame of reference: E-flat major and its related keys are not the brightest of tonalities on strings. A highlight of the first movement was the sense of exhaustion engendered by the concise development section; all that could be done now, one felt, was to recapitulate; not that recapitulation is ever merely that in Mozart. The slow movement proved intense, but a little too much like hard work. It was never rushed, though, whereas the minuet was taken surprisingly fast, emerging almost scherzo-like; indeed, its violent streak might have better suited Beethoven. The gentler trio came properly as a contrast, though arguably too great a contrast. Allegro vivace is the finale’s marking. However, I am not sure that its mood, irrespective of speed, really registered as vivace. Again, despite febrile intensity, the overall impression was somewhat effortful. However, there was charm to be heard from a number of Lukas Hagen’s sweet-toned solos.


Such seriousness of purpose seemed better suited to Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet. A note of tragic lyricism was struck immediately, developing alongside and in between a rhetoric of anger, which nevertheless remained integrated into a structural whole. This was not comforting, consoling Schubert, nor should it be. The fragility of the slow movement’s opening was palpable; though relatively swift, it unsettled. I wondered whether one might hear more here in the way of consolation, however illusory, but the Hagens’ view had a consistency, almost Beethovenian, of its own. Whispered confidences and more ardent responses marked the minuet. This was certainly not to be danced to, but then that was never the intention. If clouds lifted in the finale, then sunshine proved far from unalloyed; there were, rightly, shadows and memories aplenty. The players skilfully trod a tightrope between major-mode transformation and haunting from what had gone before. Where the Mozart performance had intrigued and posed questions, the Schubert sounded more of a convincing, indeed wrenching, whole.


Mark Berry

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