Wigmore Mondays – Hagen Quartet play Schubert’s last quartet

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen (f.l.t.r)

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen (f.l.t.r)

Hagen Quartet Photo (c) Harald Hoffmann

For this performance, Veronika Hagen had to miss out with a shoulder injury. The line-up was therefore Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt (violins), Iris Hagen-Juda (viola) and Clemens Hagen (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 18 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0770ms1

Available until 17 May

What’s the music?

Schubert – String Quartet in G major, D887 (1826) (55 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, the Hagen Quartet’s recording of this work can be accessed through Spotify on the playlist below:

About the music

Schubert’s last quartet remains shrouded in secrecy. It is however another illustration of the ‘late’ Schubert’s ability to write at tremendous speed. ‘Late’ Schubert of course is the composer in his very late twenties, dogged by illness but still able to write a large string quartet such as this in a mere ten days.

He did not hear it in his lifetime, for the first performance did not take place until 1850 in Vienna – at which point the audience will no doubt have been surprised to note that the first movement, clocking in at well over 20 minutes, is the size of many Haydn quartets. It is classic late Schubert, finding its own sweet time but containing some extraordinary music of poignancy and depth.

It eclipses in size Schubert’s previous biggest quartets, known as the Rosamunde and Death and the Maiden respectively, but it goes further in exploring Schubert’s near-obsession with the conflict of major and minor mentality. The piece is listed as being in G major but often spends time in the minor, creating an exquisite tension resolved only in the final moments.

Performance verdict

Quite simply an outstanding performance from a quartet wholly inside the music. The Hagen Quartet kept extremely concentrated levels of performance throughout a gripping drama that took hold of the listener from the first moment and did not let them go.

The tension of the first movement never let up, its major-minor arguments sustained at an impressive level of intensity, but the second movement introduced more raw emotion in the form of Clemens Hagen’s yearning cello solo. The bubbling scherzo gave a little respite but in the finale the group restored Schubert’s tense arguments, never allowing one to dominate, holding the conflict firm.

They also reminded listeners of just how expansive Schubert’s quartet-writing had become, to the extent that some passages sound like a small string orchestra rather than four players. That the Hagens managed to do this without full-time viola player Veronika

What should I listen out for?

2:27 – the quartet begins and immediately sets out the idea that will give it extreme tension over the next 45 minutes. Here – and seemingly throughout – the music alternates between major (the very beginning) and minor (2:32), the listener torn between happy and sad and never quite sure which is which.

A certain amount of piece descends with the first theme proper from the violin at 3:09, given over hushed tremolos in the other three instruments.

At 6:36 the cello takes over with a beautiful theme, if somewhat hesitantly written in by Schubert. Then at 8:40 the quartet observe Schubert’s instruction to repeat the music from the beginning. From 14:58 the quartet slow the pace a little, giving the main tune a more graceful impression, but the tense movement in the other instruments takes over once again.

At 18:23 a serene home key is reached, and then the music heads into a more emphatic passage, closing out one of the longest single movements in the quartet repertoire (22 minutes)

26:17 – the second movement, marked Andante un poco moto, is a beautiful though rather sorrowful piece of music, introduced by a sparse chord and then passed over to the cello for a reflective, songful tune. This completely dominates the music, though there are two stormy interruptions (28:01 and (31:41), where Schubert feels more unhinged.

However at 34:11 the music shifts to the major, and for a brief moment all cares are forgotten as a shaft of sunlight comes through.

37:17 – the third movement is a Scherzo, and its scurrying main theme again sets the mood for the whole movement. It acts like the wind picking up stray leaves and whirling them around…before they are set down in the ‘trio’ section, beginning at 40:33, which features a charming melody from the cello which is almost suitable for the stage. This is taken up by the violins. The scherzo section returns in its entirety at 42:55.

45:25 – the last movement reinstates the conflict between major key and minor key, and holds it the whole way through til the end. It starts with the nervy tune, and the backwards and forwards continues in music of a distinctly wary energy. At 46:36 the violin introduces another prominent theme, this one more obviously happy in the major key. Then at 49:36 another melody asserts itself, this one more earthbound and like a hymn.

At 50:24 we hear the main idea of the last movement once again…through until at 55:16, when the hymn-like tune is more profound. The music then arrives at a final, massive two part cadence – completed at 57:20.

Further listening

How to follow one of the biggest works in string quartet literature? Well I’ve tried to go for a mixture of big and small in the additions to the playlist. For small-scale, you can enjoy another Schubert movement for string quartet, the brilliant, self-contained Quartettsatz, as it’s known. On a bigger scale, Schubert’s quartet is often compared and contrasted with his Symphony no.9, known as the Great – and that is noted below:

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