Through my teens, when I wasn’t listening to the Beatles or reading the Zen classics, I spent much of my time immersing myself in late Beethoven string quartets—almost a definition of “serious music”. And then I got to play them at Cambridge; but later (even before I read Susan McClary) I came to react against his cerebral style. Indeed, I’ve rarely heard a string quartet in live performance since the 1970s.
So after a long absence from these works, it was a suitably intense, immersive experience to hear the Salzburg-based Hagen quartet (no relation to Nina, alas) playing the A minor and C♯ minor quartets the other day at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The three siblings in the group (Lukas, Veronika, and Clemens) have been musicking together since childhood; and Rainer Schmidt replaced a fourth sibling back in 1987. With such long experience their blend of sonority is wondrous; they have clearly thought a lot about vibrato, now using it sparingly—notably Schmidt in the unsung role of 2nd violin.
Whereas the orchestral life can be soul-destroying (see Mozart in the jungle), with as much drudge as ecstasy (and for jazzers too, square notions like health and security tend to get sacrificed in the quest for creative autonomy), from the outside, making a living from chamber music seems like an enviable life—particularly belonging to a string quartet. For the virtuoso soloist, the repertoire is narrower, and travelling solitary; for jobbing orchestral musos, chamber music may serve as a reminder of why they took up music in the first place. Still, only a minority of quartets achieve a reliable “food-bowl”—and even they can’t avoid the trying routine of airports, hotels, and promotions (for insights on the life of a string quartet, see under Quartets). And of course, such stellar groups are just the tip of the iceberg: there’s a rich repertoire for amateur combos to explore.
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The extreme contrasts of Beethoven’s late quartets display the kind of splintered psyche that only became explored commonly in the 20th century. Besides Joseph Kerman’s classic The Beethoven quartets (1967), among myriad discussions of the A minor quartet, see here; it has been much analysed, not least by Susan McClary in Conventional wisdom. Indeed, it has been cited as a counterbalance on the importance of analysing any world music, such as aboriginal dream songs.
Like the Bach Air, the Adagietto of Mahler 5, or indeed Daoist hymns, the Heiliger Dankgesang (also the well-chosen name for PDQ Bach‘s co-commentator) is even more intense when heard live in the context of the whole work. Here’s the Hagen quartet’s 2005 recording (from this playlist):
Since then, to judge from the concert, they may further refined the purity of their timbre for this movement and others such as of the penultimate Adagio of the C♯ minor quartet, often sounding even more like a viol consort.
Going back to the 1930s, when the use of vibrato was in flux, the seminal recordings of the Busch quartet (at Abbey road!) from 1936–37, on the eve of devastating global warfare, are less sparing with vibrato:
And here the Heiliger Dankgesang is much more molto adagio too:
And here are the 2017 recordings by the Quatuor mosaïques on original instruments—in line with changing modern tastes:
And, as a bonus, nearly two centuries after its premiere (which Beethoven missed as he was down the pub) the Große Fuge (or “The grocer” as it’s known in the biz) is even more challenging and revolutionary—like The Rite of Spring, its aural bombardment is always a shock:
To end on a lighter and typically unsuitable note, click here for the creative tribulations of the composer according to Monty Python, and here for their Beethoven LP (“The second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was “just a harmless bit of fun…”).