After decades of playing together, the members of the Hagen Quartet are at the apex of their interpretative careers. Tonal and rhythmic coordination is totally effortless. The “baton passing”, from one instrument to the next, is impossibly smooth. The four members of the ensemble truly play like a single organism. At the same time, they still share with their listeners a tremendous pleasure of exploring together all the corners of the repertoire. There is no perceivable whiff of ennui.

Hagen Quartet © Harald Hoffmann
Hagen Quartet
© Harald Hoffmann

The quartet started their Zankel Hall recital with a rendition of Beethoven’s deceptively simple Quartet in G major Op.18, no. 2. They let the music “sing” with minimal intervention, emphasizing at the same time the young composer’s efforts to escape from Haydn’s shadow by pushing the music stream outside the borders of the classical style. The Hagens underlined the music’s dynamism and unruliness, the unconventional choice of rhythmic patterns, the outbursts of energy. They drew attention to such special moments as the unexpected switch to E flat during a little fugato at the beginning of the Allegro’s development section. At the same time, they recognized Beethoven’s homage to his former teacher’s “seriousness”, craft, and exceptional sense of humor. Particularly beautiful was the abrupt back and forth transition from the Adagios warm line to a fidgety Allegro, evoking a similar pattern used by Haydn in the last part of his C Major quartet, Op.54, no. 2.

Like Beethoven, Béla Bartók had a lifelong interest in composing string quartets, constantly exploring new dimensions in terms of tonality, rhythm and instrumental playing techniques. Out of his six, the Third is the most concise and cohesive, consisting of four parts played without interruption. The work starts with a slower, dreamlike, fragmentary music, moving later to a lively, longer phrases, Hungarian folk song inspired second segment. It’s a difficult score, full of complexities that can be perceived differently at various levels of understanding. The interpreters here made sure that listeners new to the piece could enjoy the many coloristic effects and the enticing syncopated rhythms. For those more interested in the quartet’s extraordinary inner structures, the Hagens highlighted the wealth of contrapuntal methods Bartók freely uses and the difficult to recognize transformations occurring in the recapitulations.

After intermission, the Hagens invited Kirill Gerstein to join them in a passionate rendition of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34. It was easily to recognize, from the very first measures of the Allegro non troppo unison theme, that there is a special bond between strings and pianist. Gerstein collaborates with cellist Clemens Hagen, both in duo performances and as a trio, together with violinist Kolya Blacher, but the achieved level of integration between the pianist and the four string instrumentalists, that have played together since 1981, was still amazingly high. Gerstein, an exceptionally sensitive and modest pianist with a keen interest in chamber music, knew perfectly well when to take the lead – as when enouncing the first theme of the Adagio – and when to retire to a secondary role. There was nothing routine about this performance of an opus rooted in both Beethoven’s penchant for daring sonorities and Schubert’s extraordinary melodic gift and soaring lyricism. Several sequences were outstanding, such as the simple understated elegance of the slow movement, the C major chorale in the Scherzo or the sonorities reminiscent of Beethoven’s late quartets, immediately followed by a superb cello and piano dialogue in the Finale’s Poco sostenuto.

It is regrettable that so many seats were empty in Zankel Hall for this performance. It's true that there was a competing presentation given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons, its charismatic leader, upstairs, in the Stern Auditorium. However, that should not have been a sufficiently good reason for the cognoscenti. The Hagens always perform music of the highest quality and their visits to New York are so rare that any occasion to follow them in a live concert should be truly cherished.