A warm ovation prompted an exquisite encore in Beethoven's Bagatelle Op 126 No 1, a highly personal, even quixotic reading that made me long to hear Brendel play the whole set. Prior to the Concerto, Marriner had set Beethoven's Seventh Symphony on a dancing course where the timpanist Tristan Fry thrashed merry hell into the tempestuous finale. There were no repeats, and no affected mannerisms; just honest musical reportage, disciplined execution and a refreshing determination to let the music speak for itself.
Which posed the question: does Beethoven actually need much in the way of interpretative intervention? I suppose that depends on who's intervening, and if you attended the Wigmore Hall on Saturday night, you certainly won't have felt indifferent to what you heard. It was the Hagen Quartet's turn to present "Beethoven as a symbol of European Friendship" (the Carmina, Keller and Mosaiques Quartets are scheduled for early next year). Their journey shunted us back and forth from Beethoven's last quartet (Op 135), through the pensive "storm and stress" of his C minor (Op 18 No 4) to the celestial commentaries of his epic 14th in C sharp minor, Op 131.
The playing was breathtaking in its precision, dynamism and agility, with so much inflexional variety and quick-fire point-making that you constantly wanted to shout "hold on there - what was that you played? Let's hear it again!" To be honest, there was probably too much going on, though the sheer physical force of Op 135's scherzo - the manic trio in particular - exerted a circus-like fascination. Eccentricities were legion. The C minor Quartet's opening Allegro ma non tanto, for example, fired away at such a ridiculously fast tempo that pensiveness gave way to mild hysteria. As a "one off" it made for a thrilling encounter, but I'd not want to hear it again.
The scherzo was more extreme still, though when it came to Op 131, Beethoven steals the lead on all potential interpreters by parading so many outrageous ideas - one after the other, and with perennial unpredictability - that even the Hagens were brought to heel. Here they calmed to a more acceptable level of excitability and their performance was filled with subtlety and wonder.
Robert CowanReuse content