Beethoven: String Quartets
From the time I started listening seriously to music, everyone told me in no uncertain terms that Beethoven’s last quartets were the ultimate in musical profundity and greatness. So I have listened to them often over the decades, with the result that I often find them more graspable than the earlier quartets, even the first set, the six of Op. 18.
The Hagen Quartet, an uncompromising team, begin with what is the first of that set, though named No. 3. The notes pronounce that Beethoven made a close study of Haydn’s and Mozart’s string quartets, and in his early works emulated them. But that is never how they sound to me: I find them forbidding in their blatant seriousness and aggression, and lacking in warmth. They are much less accessible than his contemporaneous piano sonatas. Indeed, the Hagen’s performance of No. 3 and No. 5 – potentially a more genial work, with a vast set of variations for its slow movement – are grim, even fierce, with harsh string tone forwardly recorded. The players mellow for Beethoven’s last Quartet, the sublime Op. 135, and virtually sing the hymnic slow movement. Their virtuosity is up to the skylarks of the second-movement Vivace and the third movement, at the end of which Beethoven dances off into eternity.