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:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa