Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ensemble Music concert: Hagen Quartet focuses this season on music of its countryman Schubert

Quartets produced late in each composer's career made up the program the Hagen Quartet played under Ensemble Music Society auspices Wednesday evening at the Indiana History Center.

Rainer Schmidt, Clemens Hagen, Veronika Hagen, and Lukas Hagen.
There is always a temptation to see late works, especially from eras when health was easily imperiled and sudden or lingering death was common, as an artistic creator's premonitions of that universal fate. There is some basis to support foreboding intimations in the case of the concert's three pieces: Beethoven's Quartet no. 16 in F major, op. 135; Shostakovich's Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor, op. 138, and Schubert's Quartet No. 13 in A minor, op. 29, D. 804 ("Rosamunde").

The most insistently gloomy of those pieces is the Shostakovich, a bleak work in one long movement, reflecting the Soviet composer's weariness at running afoul of his government and a mounting succession of health problems. He had five fraught years remaining to him when he wrote his thirteenth string quartet in 1970. Its music stretches Shostakovich's aesthetic reach even as it reinforces his signature reticence punctuated by bravado (often humorous, but not here).

It seemed to suit the Hagen foursome well. Founded in 1981 by four Austrian siblings, of whom three have remained throughout the ensemble's career, the Hagen unifies its interpretations precisely, guided by what is strikingly like extrasensory perception. Eye contact and body language play a minimal role, from what was evident on the IHC stage.

This characteristic lent a special gravity to the B-flat minor quartet's last section. In returning to the haunting atmosphere of the work's outset, the music doubles down on its "memento mori" feeling, evoking the visual-arts meme of a still life, but often with a human figure in contemplation, that includes a skull. I was struck by hints of emotional healing and calm in the Hagen's performance; amid occasional tapping on instruments and separated phrases verging on silence, the hospice evocation was distinctive. This did much to settle the agitation of the faster middle section, a kind of "Totentanz" of feverish irresolution. Here and elsewhere in the work, Shostakovich's experimentation with twelve-tone features, though never abandoning tonality, serve to fragment his usual rhythmic and melodic profile.

Uncanny unity in tone, dynamics and phrasing marked everything the Hagen played. The players seem disinclined to take up invitations in the music to shine individually. Even when a solo turn in the spotlight was offered by the score, it was lent just enough prominence to avoid sounding understated. That was true of the way Veronika Hagen launched the Shostakovich, as well as of first violinist Lukas Hagen's manner in the Beethoven work. That piece has aspects of the stand-out role assigned to the first violin in Classical period quartets, but Lukas was never a showboat.

The best aspect of the Hagen's F-major quartet performance was its poised presentation of the music's lightheartedness, even while not underplaying its dire hints. Particularly vivid was the group's indulgence in the quirky humor of the finale, which is formed around the mysterious "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" question-and-answer motto. I'm guessing the ensemble leans toward an interpretation of "Must it be? It must be!" that favors a firm but semi-jocular conversational exchange about money, about which the insecure Beethoven typically expressed great interest. There's a little too much whimsy, amply respected in this performance, to read nothing but fatalism about life into the piece.

After intermission came a work more saturated with its composer's portentous fears: Schubert's "Rosamunde" quartet. Again, the bursts of flashiness in the first violin part were not obtrusive. In the finale, every gesture was fully within the embrace of ensemble playing.  And despite its darkly ruminative mood, the third-movement minuet and trio had a sprightly dance motion to it; the Trio even went a bit "country" in its suggestion of the musette (a small bagpipe with pastoral associations). Another confirmation of the Hagen's unity was how this quality lent weight even to transitional passages in the second movement, in between focus on the tune Schubert borrowed from one of his minimally successful stage projects — incidental music to the play "Rosamunde."

Recalled to the stage for an encore, the Hagen offered a short work also featuring its superb violist. In a transcription of a Dvorak song, Veronika Hagen carried the vocal line with extraordinary tenderness, cushioned by her (for the most part) lifelong colleagues.

[Photo by Harald Hoffman]

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