Tina Fineberg, The New York Times
The Upper East Side's 92nd Street Y has a longstanding tradition of programming the complete cycle of Beethoven's heralded 16 string quartets that dates back to 1938, when the then–Y.M.H.A. presented the Budapest String Quartet in a series of five concerts. The marketing collateral used in 1938 still rings true today: "If you are a musician, you will appreciate the importance of this announcement—if not, just ask any real musician and you will be convinced." Composed over the course of 24 years, Beethoven's quartets represent the pinnacle of the string-quartet form, mirroring the development of the composer's style as well as his fiery temperament and health troubles.
The latest cycle comes from the Austrian Hagen Quartet, one of Europe's most critically acclaimed groups, marking their first-ever survey of the Beethoven quartets outside of Europe. Still comprising three of the four sibling members of the Hagen family who founded the ensemble in 1981 (Rainer Schmidt permanently stepped in after second violinist Angelika's departure in 1987), the quartet has built an acutely innate sense of communication that allows for an effortless and intimate performance style.
Sunday's program, the third of six concerts in the series, featured the E minor Quartet, Op. 59, No. 2, of the "Razumovsky" set, and the titanic A minor Quartet, Op. 132—a solid 80 minutes of material that demands incredibly dense and virtuosic music-making from its players. The Hagen players excelled in showcasing the dynamic contrasts between the two quartets, and although the venue's Kaufmann Concert Hall didn’t allow for a deep sense of resonance in the music's quietist passages, it was clear that the audience was seeing four masters at work.
Surprisingly enough, the ensemble opened the program with the muted A minor Quartet, a greater challenge musically due to the lack of any typically "flashy" material. Written after the successes of the Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, the A minor Quartet is a shadowy, autumnal work from a composer at the height of his powers, seamlessly moving from solemn prayer to stormy outbursts and back again.
The quartet also boasts the famous central movement, "Heilinger Dankgesang [Holy Song of Thanksgiving]"—an 18-minute meditation on the strength of the human spirit, composed after a near-death liver virus nearly ended the composer's life. Written in the Lydian church mode, the chorale-like hymns sounded otherworldly in the Hagen Quartet's hands, with each variation on the initial canonic entrances coming across as an organic entity that maintained a beautiful sense of blossoming throughout. A daring use of straight-tone playing (no vibrato) and a full range of dynamic possibilities truly set the Hagen Quartet apart from their peers, and this sole movement alone would have been well worth the price of admission.
The Hagen Quartet continues their Beethoven cycle on Thursday, November 14, Saturday, November 16, and Sunday, November 17. Complete program information and tickets available via the 92Y's box office.