Who would have imagined that one could experience a kinship of sorts between string quartets by Mozart and Bartok written over a century apart?
And yet the Hagen Quartet did precisely that with the cleverly devised first half of their impressive Wigmore concert - because nowhere in his short life did Mozart push the envelope of experimentation as dramatically as he did in the first movement of his String Quartet in E-flat K428.
The skeletal unison of the opening theme carves out a path that makes it almost impossible for the listener to detect a key centre. It’s as close to an abstract idea as Mozart ever came and it seems to foreshadow an atonal future where colour and atmosphere (as in the ensuing Bartok) will count for more than thematic development. The Hagens added to its intrigue by draining it of vibrato, lending the impression of four old voices in a kind of eerie canon.
Throughout this concert the Hagens (three of them siblings – an easy case of spot the outsider!) played boldly, even dangerously, with vibrato, flattening the sound to achieve a natural, unadorned, beauty. And even later, in Brahms, they carried forward this healthy awareness of period style by relying more on phrasing than vibrato to make the music sing.
In Bartok’s Third Quartet it sang of an earthy folksiness and true grit with all manner of nocturnal scamperings, slides, and creepy sul ponticello. It was like we had come full circle from the mysterious Mozart of the opening minutes and even tapped into the Haydnesque rusticity of its scherzo. But what was truly impressive here was the intuitive tightness of the playing, the speedy reflexes born of a kind of telepathy.
And there was more where that came from when the wonderful Mitsuko Uchida joined them for the Brahms Piano Quintet. The opening unison between piano and Lukas Hagen’s first violin was indeed like a furtive déjà vu of the Mozart. And as Uchida watched her colleague like a hawk (she is as giving a collaborative player as she is solo) we could see the story of this music begin to unfold on her face.
Her underpinning of the texture was an unselfish force for good throughout: she is such a great listener, always aware of her place in the harmony – and the harmony really glowed here. But exhilaration is what one really took home, a ruddy, open-aired quality which began in the bracing scherzo and reached its apotheosis in the dramatic coda of the finale.