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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Some Remarkable Beethoven

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

String quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 [33:43]
String quartet in a minor, Op. 132 [41:16]

The Hagen Quartet
Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt, violins; Veronika Hagen, viola and Clemens Hagen, cello.

Recorded in the Schloss Mondsee in November 2003 and in Wiesloch, Palatin, Minnesängersall in March 2004.

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 5705 [75:07]

When Beethoven was commissioned by Prince Galitzin in November of 1822 to compose a new set of string quartets, he was in the enviable position of having complete artistic freedom and the a clout to demand any price he wished for the completed works. He accepted the commission for the then whopping fee of fifty ducats per quartet and promised the first quartet to be delivered in March of the following year. The patron would have to wait far longer, as the completion of the ninth symphony and the Missa Solemnis took priority, and the quartets were not delivered until 1825. The result, however was spectacular, and the late quartets were to become the Beethoven’s crowning achievement; music for the ages with little or no regard to tradition, nor with any concern about audience reaction to these most remarkable, unusual and heretofore unheard of structures and sounds.

Central to both of these works are their slow movements. Longer in both cases by nearly double the lengths of their surrounding movements, Beethoven relies far more on the conveyance of a specific set of thoughts or ideas as opposed to any real dependence on form. This is especially true of the poignant Convalescent’s Holy Song of Tthanksgiving to the Deity, a sincere expression of gratitude from the composer upon his recovery from a long and painful stomach disorder. The serenity and sheer beauty of this single movement is overwhelming, and to hear this fine performance would be worth the cost of the entire disc.

The Hagens have been on the scene for some years now, making a fairly good sized collection of recordings. I have found it interesting however how heavily they rely on the standard repertoire in their programming, with sojourns outside the established canon being fairly rare occurrences. That aside, these are performances of supreme dedication and finesse. Given that the late Beethoven quartets are notorious for their difficulty, one would never know it to hear them played by the Hagens.

Intonation and ensemble are first rate, as one would come to expect from such a seasoned group. What I found to be most refreshing was the pacing of the works. They are never allowed to bog down in syrupy romanticism, even in the sublime Convalescent’s Thanksgiving, which could easily give way to self-indulgence. The Hagens do indulge, however in a bit of extraneous sniffing and snorting, a habit of which my extreme distaste is well known. It is however not enough to detract from this beautifully paced, flawlessly executed performance.

A highly commendable release, worth some pride of place in any collection.

Kevin Sutton

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