Beethoven: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18/4; String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
WORKS: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18/4; String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131
PERFORMER: Hagen Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 459 611-2
The Hagen Quartet drives the first movement of the C minor Quartet hard, and it is a turbulent piece, but Beethoven does qualify his ‘allegro’ marking with the words ‘non tanto’ – not too much. Here it’s not just the speed which seems inappropriately fast, especially when the second subject comes along, but the whole approach, which verges on the brutal. Luckily, that doesn’t continue in the scherzo second movement, which is nicely poised, and well contrasted in tempo and mood with the following minuet (paradoxically and correctly this is faster than the Scherzo). And the finale is driven as much as the first movement, but this works with the music rather than against it. The C sharp minor Quartet is an even tougher challenge: its seven movements have to make a contrast, while at the same time be integrated into the whole. I’m not sure that the Hagens are totally successful in this. The opening fugue is on the literal side, and the second movement too thrown-away – in contrast, the variations at the heart of the quartet begin too slowly and earnestly, so that they have nowhere to go for the great Adagio. Fast music suits the Hagens better, and, despite a few untidinesses, the scherzo and finale are well paced and convincing, but overall, I wasn’t left musically satisfied. For that I would turn to the maturity of the Végh Quartet, which brings out the spiritual dimension of the music, even if it doesn’t have the extra CD-ROM material which, among other things, here enables you to follow the score as you listen. Martin Cotton