Beethoven: String Quartets (SACD review)

No. 3, Op. 18; No. 5, Op. 18; No. 16, Op. 135. The Hagen Quartet. Myrios Classics MYR009.

No doubt I’m showing my age when I still think of the Hagen Quartet as a young, new ensemble of Austrian players. In fact, the siblings first began performing as a group professionally in 1981, making them today among the oldest string quartets around. But, then, for me 1981 seems like yesterday. Since the quartet’s formation, second violinist Rainer Schmidt has replaced sister Angelika Hagen, joining first violinist Lukas Hagen, violist Veronika Hagen, and cellist Clemens Hagen. Together, they have recorded over forty albums for Decca, DG, Myrios Classics, and other labels. Following up a highly successful and internationally celebrated thirtieth season devoted to the Beethoven string quartet cycle, the Hagens offer the present album of three Beethoven string quartets, an album that illustrates the group’s virtuosity, sensitivity, and versatility.

The Hagens begin the program with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18, which was actually the composer’s first string quartet composition, probably written around 1798. This quartet’s most salient feature is its second-movement Andante con moto, a piece of music that is not only beautiful in anybody’s hands but especially so given the expertise of the Hagens. It flows gently along, and even in its most energetic moments the group keeps the tone relaxed and charming. Another unique aspect of the quartet is a concluding Presto for which Beethoven indicates a speed of some ninety-six beat per minute. That’s a heck of a fast pace, and the Hagens try to emulate it while still keeping the tempo as flexible as possible. Remarkably, they never make it appear breathless.

Next is the String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, a lighter work than No. 3, with greater lilt.  Beethoven patterned it more closely than No 3 on the quartets of Mozart, and the Hagens play it with great felicity. It’s delightful in every way, particularly in the Minuetto with its halting rhythms and in the Andante Cantabile with its melancholy overtones.

The disc closes with the last quartet Beethoven ever wrote, No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 from 1826, composed nearly three decades after his first quartet. There is quite a difference in style, with No. 16 being far more creative, inventive, and mature than his previous quartets, more completely “Beethoven” if you will. Here, it is again the slow movement that stands out, one the composer marked “cantante e tranquillo.” Beethoven would die shortly thereafter, making it, indeed, his final tranquil song. The Hagens afford it all the sweet peace the music deserves.

A most generous playing time of almost eighty minutes, pretty much the upper limit of a compact disc, puts the icing on the cake.

Myrios Classics recorded the music in 2012, No. 3 at Siemens-Villa, Berlin, and Nos. 5 and 16 at Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal. Although the disc is an SACD with the possibility for multichannel playback, it’s also a hybrid with a regular two-channel stereo layer to which I listened (albeit from an SACD player). I found the sound in both recording venues very wide for so small an ensemble, so expect the stage to spread across your two front speakers. It’s not quite as realistic an image as I’d like, it’s a tad bright in the lower treble, and the balance tends slightly to favor the left side of the stage. Otherwise, we get excellent definition, and certainly we hear a big, open, airy sound, with a a more than ample dynamic range.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa