The Festival de Pâques has more than a whiff of Salzburg about it, an aroma that will translate into substance next year when, as artistic director Renaud Capuçon announced last weekend, a direct collaboration is due to take place between the two cities. For that reason alone no visitors to Aix-en-Provence could be more apposite than the Austrian town’s favourite musical children, the Hagen Quartet.

The Hagen Quartet © Caroline Doutre
The Hagen Quartet
© Caroline Doutre

Originally composed of four siblings, the present incarnati of the ensemble, with second violinist Rainer Schmidt the only non-Hagen family member in the group, has played as a unit for more than 30 years. They barely seem old enough for that to be true; and certainly there was no hint of jaded routine in their approach to early works by three composers of differing styles but a shared youthful zest.

Brother and sister Lukas (1st violin) and Veronika (viola) began Beethoven’s Quartet no. 3 in D major, which was the first the composer actually completed, almost as though play-acting a courting couple. The delicately questioning violin seemed to stroke a lock of the other’s hair; the viola raised its eyes in bashful response. That at least was how it sounded, and as an entrée to the recital it was a moment as touching as it was powerful. From then on the movement unfolded with an elegant playfulness that felt fractionally over-refined but nevertheless projected a shared joy.

In the Andante con moto second movement it became clear that the engine room of the Hagen Quartet is Rainer Schmidt. How riveting it was to watch and hear his second violin disappear into the music’s fabric and merge into the sound picture. Yet his contribution, here and throughout the recital, acted like invisible glue to cement the instrumental harmony. Not that any of his colleagues were slouches, particularly Lukas Hagen in his leadership of the Presto finale, a virtuosic whirlwind that he seasoned with a tangy soupçon of portamenteau.

At 18 minutes, Webern’s String Quartet in E major amounts to a substantial work for a composer whose music would grow increasingly spare once he had eschewed tonality altogether. This early composition, although less sensual than, say, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, plays with tonality in succulent ways: typically, each instrument follows its own path through a recognisable landscape but in different keys and discordant ensembles. Yet occasionally, when the four parts align, Webern finds a harmonic purity that creates moments of desperate beauty. The Hagens had its measure, and from the astringency of the second movement to the mellow finale the conviction of their playing was mesmerising.

The String Quartet in G minor by Debussy, his sole essay in the form, is one of the composer’s most oft-heard chamber works; here it received a performance that sacrificed a degree of Gallic fragrance in its pursuit of precision. Debussy’s colours were all present and correct but there was nothing freeform in the playing that might have shaded the textures. The Hagens’ most affecting movement was the finale, with its mournful echo of the opening movement’s first subject – a mood that inspired all four musicians to their most luminous playing.