It is not that surprising that most of the audience at Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium not only had never heard of the Hagen Quartett, but that this was the group's first performance with the Chamber Arts Society of Durham, in association with Duke Performances. While that may not be unusual for a relatively young, up-and-coming quartet with numerous recent awards and accolades, the Hagen Quartett is far from that. Founded in Salzburg in 1981 and by four Hagen siblings, this quartet is one of the most popular and revered in Europe and one whose voluminous recordings don't get the distribution they deserve in the United States. That, along with their relatively rare tours to these parts, makes a chance to hear them live a rare experience that should not be missed. So, despite the exact conflict with the sanctified Duke-UNC basketball game, there was a full house at Baldwin.
One of the original siblings, second violinist Angelika Hagen, left the quartet way back in 1987, so the current lineup is original members first violinist Lukas Hagen, violist Veronika Hagen, cellist Clemens Hagen, cello, plus non-Hagen Rainer Schmidt, second violin. This was one of those concerts where the programming jumped off the page and made this a "must see" event. It was a meeting of the three great "Bs" of chamber music: Beethoven, Bartók and Brahms (no offense Bach, in this context). With the addition of pianist Kirill Gerstein for the Brahms Piano Quintet, who had just played a piano recital at Baldwin the night before, this was indeed a chamber music lover's nirvana.
According to the program notes, since 2013 the Hagen Quartett has been performing on the four loaned Stradivari instruments known as the "Paganini" quartet. Imagining the history and value of these living works of art as the quartet performed added yet another aspect of magic to the performance.
First up was Beethoven's String Quartet in G, op. 18, no. 2. Actually, the third composed in his Opus 18 set of six string quartets, published in 1801, this is Beethoven at his most exuberant, playful, and almost teasing; a world away from the gravitas of his late quartets. There almost seems to be a tug-of-war between Beethoven's reverence for the tradition of Mozart and Haydn and his burgeoning personal vision of the future of music. While this quartet is a traditional four-movement work with standard descriptions, each movement has a new and unique ingredient that enhances our aural experience as would an enhanced twist to a well-loved recipe.
The Hagen Quartett, whether by design or similarities of personality, performed in a style that could be described as "old-world" charm. They eschewed most excessive outward displays of physical response to the music, although their intensity and emotional rapport to the score and each other was apparent. They also tended to use vibrato in a much more limited manner than most non-period instruments ensembles, almost to harken back to vibrato as an ornamental effect rather than the default.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) follows in the paths of Beethoven and others in having composed a set of string quartets that, if not necessarily the "best" of their output, is certainly representative of their growth as composers. Bartók's six string quartets are masterpieces of twentieth-century music that still challenge players, scholars and listeners. The third, written in 1927, is unique in that it is played as if one continuous movement despite the parts and score being divided into four sections. "Accessible" is a relative term, even for music now close to one hundred years old, but Bartók's third quartet is music that rewards you in direct relation to the attention you give it. That, of course, is part of the performers' job and the Hagen Quartett was masterful. This is an emotional roller coaster, from a bleak, contrapuntal initial section to a compendium of string-playing effects that employ folk elements broken down and reassembled.
There may be many other common threads among Schumann, Dvořák and Brahms, but it is certainly a fact that they composed both the greatest and most popular piano quintets in the history of music. Yes, there are other good ones in a relatively narrow field, but if you're a pianist collaborating with a string quartet, one of these three is the crowd pleaser, and will probably sell the most tickets. Gerstein, an astoundingly accomplished keyboard player both in the Classical as well as jazz worlds, joined with the Hagen Quartet for Johannes Brahms' epic Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34.
Brahms, the perfectionist and biggest critic of his own works, originated this piece as a string quintet, then a piano duo before publishing it as a piano quintet in 1865. It is easily placed in the top five greatest chamber works ever composed and is a nearly bottomless fount of musical ideas, profundity, and excitement for players and listeners alike. The opening phrase itself is imbued with so much inner life and power, that regardless its numerous returns, one just luxuriates in its Brahmsian beauty and delicious major-minor battles. The first movement, by itself, is so symphonic and sprawling that alone it would qualify as a masterpiece, yet each of the following three movements are an unending wonder of musical invention and excitement.
One problem with the quartet-only first half was that at times they seemed a bit too polite and were not willing to turn the amp up to eleven when it was needed and appropriate. Gerstein, using an iPad with Bluetooth pedal control and putting another page-turner out of work, appeared to give them the kick and "permission" to really let loose with optimal intensity and volume. As a result, this was one of the best performances, live or recorded, of this greatest of chamber works that I had ever heard.