Review: Hagen Quartet

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The Hagen Quartet joins Alban Berg, Emerson and Mosaïques as the world’s leading contemporary string ensembles. For the past 34 years, the Hagan siblings (one of them was replaced by Rainer Schmidt in 1987) have captivated chamber music fans with their seamless blend and warm sound played on four Stradivarius instruments on loan from Japan.

The Hagen Quartet began their 2015/16 season in Osaka and Tokyo, before making a one-night stop in Hong Kong on October 6th. The programme that night consisted of two staples from their well-honed repertoire: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14. They enlisted Jörg Widmann, Julliard-trained clarinettist and prolific composer of instrumental and choral music.

The Hagen Quartet executed the Mozart quintet with not only gusto and precision, but also remarkable rapport with the clarinettist. Widman’s solo lines were equal parts flawless and effortless. His seemingly infinite lung capacity allowed him to deliver silky smooth legato and cover a half-dozen bars in a single breath. The high point of the quintet came in the allegretto con variazioni finale, where the frequent changes in mood – between major and minor keys, allegro and adagio, joy and melancholy – offered ample opportunities for the quintet to show off their artistry. Regrettably, the ensemble’s signature warm tone was betrayed by the City Hall’s lacklustre acoustics, rendering the upper registers hollow and ‘dry’ at times. The unkind venue also affected their blend, causing the first violin to sound almost pitchy and the second violin muffled.

Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 is broken up into seven linked movements of differing lengths, the shortest one comprising only 11 bars. The piece is as experimental in form as it is elusive in meaning. For instance, the gut-wrenching opening adagio resembles a requiem, but the movement segues without interruption into an allegro that recalls a German folk dance. The Hagen Quartet dexterously captures the constant mood swings and cruises through the many fugue-like contrapuntal passages with consistent accuracy. Some of the subtlety in the piece, such as a playful cello solo in the fifth movement played sul ponticello on the instrument’s bridge, was nevertheless lost in the resonance-deficient concert hall. Jason Y. Ng

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