Hagen Quartet at the Wigmore Hall review ****


Hagen Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 29th April 2017

Dmitry Shostakovich

  • String Quartet No. 3 in F major Op. 73
  • String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major Op. 142
  • String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor Op. 144

To paraphrase a great man about a great band “always different, always the same”. The same is true of DSCH (apart maybe from some of the very early experimental works). An Adagio will be ponderously slow. A Scherzo will be nuttily rapid – as close to heavy metal as it is possible to get in the world of popular classical music. There will be Russian folky tunes (hard to imagine a TV programme on C20 Russia which doesn’t have some DSCH in the background). There will be an ominous march like rhythm, screaming strings, some bizarre jokey interludes. There will be highbrow compositional structures mixed with lowbrow tunes. And there will be the endless search for clues about what he was really saying.

I love it but even I sometimes find myself focussing on the banal and the bombastic rather than the stirring and uplifting that is part and parcel of the Shostakovich experience, sometimes even in the same movement. His music seems to carry more of the personal and political, but this perhaps is a reflection of when and where he was writing, and his own gnomic utterances only served to fuel the interpretative fire. Even his own country wasn’t entirely sure whether to celebrate or condemn for much of his lifetime.

But he gets played. A lot. If you churn out this amount of music at this level of immediacy (no flirting with atonality here), with many more fans than haters ,then you are going to well represented in the concert hall – up there with Haydn and Beethoven when it comes to quartets. And if the 15 symphonies are the “public” works of his art then the 15 string quartets are the “private” offerings. So for once this concert was less a voyage of discovery for me and more an opportunity to try to evaluate what I was hearing. I have some recordings, complete Fitzwilliam and Emerson Quartet versions and assorted Borodin Quartet CDs.

I thoroughly enjoyed these Hagen Quartet interpretations. The only recording I have by them is a complete Mozart cycle; firstly, because it is string quartets, a format which I can easily digest, secondly, because it is Mozart and I know I must try harder with him and thirdly, because it was good value. But it will take a bit of time to get to the bottom of this. I understand that the HQ is made up of 2 brothers and a sister and a mate (at least I assume they are friends!), and that they have been playing together for over 30 years. So that presumably accounts for the extraordinary unison and power in the playing. As I have said there is nothing fancy dan about Dmitry’s melodies, rhythms or musical language so this lack of pussy-footing in the playing is exactly what I want to hear.

On the other hand this approach does mean that there is nothing between us and the music itself, which, when it is good, No 3 Op 73 and, in its own striking way, No 15 Op 144, it is very, very good, but when it is less compelling, No 14 Op 142, well then the doubts emerge.

No 3, along with the crowd pleasing No 8. is a work of great variation and drama, with a perky allegretto opening, a couple of the heavy metal scherzos I referred to above (I love it went a string quartet gets really loud so you feel as well as hear the sound), then the usual miserable adagio (a passacaglia here) and a final movement which contrasts the moods of the first and fourth and has a classic fade to nothing DSCH enigmatic ending.

No 15 on the other hand is made up of six slow movements. Yep you heard me, six of his most desolate (and moving) creations all in the key of E flat minor (the go-to morbid key). The piece is usually taken as his own memoriam as by then he had lung cancer, poliomyelitis in his limbs, his heart was giving up and he was still knocking back the vodka. I would always caution about programmatic readings of compositions but here you have no choice. Along with the other later works (notably the last couple of symphonies) it inspired the next generation of Soviet composers (some who had been taught by DSCH himself). And it is an amazingly powerful piece of music, though I will be honest, most of the allusion and symbolism goes over my head. Yet bizarrely it is not depressing, maybe cathartic, painful certainly, but not depressing.

BTW there is a reference in the programme to DSCH’s instructions to the Beethoven Quartet about how to play the first movement: “Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom”. Listen and you will get the picture.

So finally No 14. I don’t get it. The other two are more “obvious” in their construction, so I am probably not up to the task of decoding No 14, but it is just a tricky listen. The first and last movements seems to meander about to no great purpose and the middle Adagio sometimes gets a bit too syrupy. No doubt those who dislike all of his music will point out that there isn’t much difference between this quartet and the other two but I can’t explain it. I just don’t like it as much.

Which brings me back to my opening remarks. 80% of DSCH listening is something to be proud of, 20% best kept in the bedroom. Mind you what do I know – after all I find myself increasingly enjoying the Sisters of Mercy when they shuffle on to the IPod. Now that really is something to be ashamed of.





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