Wigmore Hall

7.30pm Thursday 23 November 2017

As always, when visiting the Wigmore Hall in centraL London, the concert-goer feels the gentle calming of the soul as he or she approaches the Hall at the end of the long, panelled entrance hall. The familiar sounds and smells of the London chamber audience politely easing their way into the soft velour seats; the plain rectangular room which has seen almost daily performances since 1901, still managing to keep out the noise and bustle of the city streets outside; the lone A-board on the stage telling the incoming audience by means of a simple image of a mobile phone with a large red cross through it, that they are now entering a world where such interferences are not welcome.

This concert, just a few weeks ago, was a midweek evening chamber music offering by the Hagen String Quartet – playing Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 4 String Quartet, Weber’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5, and Schumann’s String Quartet in A, Opus 41, No. 3.

The Hagen Quartet from Austria was originally formed in 1980 by four siblings – Angelika Hagen has subsequently retired and has been replaced at second violin by Rainer Schmidt. One of the leading quartets on the international circuit, I had seen them twice previously and always enjoyed their exciting interpretations – something which has shown even more adventurousness of late. The programme chosen for the evening was unusual in that it showed three composers who were past the exuberance of their youth and beginning to assert control of their art.

The six Beethoven Opus 18 quartets are the first of the genre that he wrote – the fourth (which was, in fact, written last) shows the masters first attempts with playing with the structure of the quartet; yes, there are four movements, but there is no slow movement. The two middle sections (Scherzo and Menuetto) are seemingly juxtaposed with the Scherzo sounding quite controlled and minuet-like and the Menuetto, quicker and Scherzo-like. Written in C minor (the only one of the Opus 18 quartets to use what was to become the key Beethoven reserved for his most dramatic works), it is only the second movement which moves away to the major version of the key. It is always a delight to hear a piece you know well, and when the Hagen Quartet began the opening bars, I felt the warmth of familiarity well over me – only to be slightly startled by their rumbustious approach to the Third movement; but their edgy treatment worked really well and set me up perfectly for the Finale.

The Webern wasn’t well-known to me and was the one piece that I held small reservations for – if it wasn’t for the fact that I knew the Schumann was to follow, then I might not have bought the ticket. But, once again, the Hagen Quartet opened my eyes. Written in 1909, when Anton Webern was writing freely atonal music, the work is, to all intents and purposes, despite its name, a String Quartet. The opening movement is the most expansive of the five and is written in sonata form. The atonal dissonance almost comes as a relief from Beethoven’s entirely tonal music and it was treated with a  reverence and serenity by the Hagen Quartet which happily took me along. The second and fourth movements are the slower and more lyrical of the five whereas the third has an urgency and energy more like the first. The succinct final movement hints at Webern’s own cello-playing with a haunting line that exemplified Webern’s extenuated form.

Despite my enjoyment of the Webern, there was audible relief from the largely retired audience when the beautiful Schumann Opus 41, No. 3 String Quartet began. As a lover of Schumann’s extensive piano music repertoire, I always find the quartets easy to listen to – and, once again, the Hagen interpretation didn’t let me down. The quartet was written, as were his only other two, in 1842. Whilst they don’t have the intensity of Beethoven’s quartets or the two later quartets by Brahms (Opus 51 – 1873), they contain a musical expressiveness that only Schumann could have possessed. The programme notes said that all three of the quartets were composed as a present for his wife Clara, and were fittingly dedicated to Mendelssohn. The sheer exuberance of the work and the poetic feelings expressed made it a delight to have heard. To have done so within the hallowed walls of the Wigmore Hall was a double delight and one which I was reminded of a little later as I left the building to venture out into the wet and windy streets. My evening in the presence of the Hagen String Quartet had been both rewarding and elucidating. They never fail to disappoint their audiences and the programme was interesting a varied.