Esther Hoppe / Veronika Hagen / Clemens Hagen
Beethoven / Mozart

Aegerihalle, Unterägeri, 2021-07-18


2021-07-23 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeAegerihalle, Unterägeri ZG, 2021-07-18 17:00h
Series / TitleFestival Sommerklänge — “Grandios”
OrganizerFestival Sommerklänge, Zug
Reviews from related eventsConcerts with the Hagen Quartett
Concerts featuring Mozart’s Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563

It’s decades since I have last been in the Aegeri valley. That’s a few km from the little town of Zug (my workplace for 2 years in the early ’80s), and around 300 meters higher in altitude. The valley features the Aegerisee, a little lake of 4 square kilometers. There are two villages, Oberägeri and Unterägeri. Unterägeri, at the northern end (outlet) of the lake is a growing municipality. One recent addition to the community is the Aegerihalle, a modern event site with a big hall for up to 900 people, concert venue for this Sunday afternoon:


The Festival Sommerklänge

The Festival Sommerklänge (Summer sounds) exists since 2001. Founder and artistic director is the Swiss pianist Madeleine Nussbaumer. The festival offers around five concerts in July/August, in the surroundings of Zug. A key feature of the festival is that it does not restrict itself to a single venue, nor a single genre. The festival brochure states that so far over 80 different venues have been used. These range from regular concert halls to industrial buildings, from open air sites and a covered wooden bridge to unusual venues such as a subterranean water reservoir.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the festival. It offers five concerts, of which this was the third and central one. The organizers were fortunate in two ways. For one, the official regulations now again possible for large size concerts with few restrictions. Most obvious: facial masks are still mandatory for indoors events. Also, a lengthy period of heavy rain and ultimately serious flooding just came to an end. The lake of Aegeri still had a high water level, but the valley had largely been spared from major flooding.


The Artists

The artists in this concert are all teachers at the Mozarteum Salzburg:

Instruments

  • According to her Website, Esther Hoppe performs on an instrument by Antonius Stradivarius (1644/48 – 1737): the 1722 violin named “De Ahna”.
  • Wikipedia.de states that Veronika Hagen performs on a variety of instruments, among them a viola by Giovanni Paolo Maggini (1580 – 1632). But she also performs on modern instruments by the German luthier Stefan-Peter Greiner (*1966). I suspect that in this concert she played on a Greiner instrument.
  • Wikipedia.de states that Clemens Hagen is performing on a 1698 cello by Antonius Stradivarius.

All three artists used modern, Tourte style bows. Expectedly, the instruments were all “modernized” (longer, steeper neck, longer fingerboard, metal or metal-clad strings). With very, very few exceptions, all Stradivarius instruments have undergone this transformation.


Program

One might ask: why Beethoven before Mozart? Or: why not follow the chronological order? In the end, the concert would reveal the answer—see below!


Setting, etc.

The venue was as full as the pandemic rules permitted. The organizers had invited me to this concert. And I enjoyed the enormous privilege of central first-row seats for myself and my wife: perfect, close view and acoustics. And an opportunity for taking unobstructed photos. Thanks a lot!


Concert & Review

BeethovenSerenade for Violin, Viola and Cello in D major, op.8

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Serenade in D major, op.8 in 1796/1797. Prior to that, he had written the String Trio in E♭ major, op.3, his first contribution to the genre. After the Serenade, op.8, Beethoven added the 3 String Trios, op.9 (G major, D major, C minor), and after that, he did not return to the genre. The Serenade, op.8 comes in six movements—just like Mozart’s Divertimento K.563:

  1. Marcia: Allegro (4/4) – Adagio (3/4)
  2. Menuetto: Allegretto (3/4)
  3. Adagio – Scherzo: Allegro molto – Adagio – Allegro molto – Adagio (D minor, 2/4)
  4. Allegretto alla polacca (F major, 3/4)
  5. Andante quasi allegretto (2/4) – Variation 1 – Variation 2 – Variation 3 – Variation 4 (2/4) – Allegro (6/8) – Tempo I (2/4)
  6. Marcia: Allegro (4/4)

The Performance

One should keep in mind that I was sitting a few meters from the artists. I profited from above-average spatial clarity. On the other hand, it is harder to judge ensemble sound & homogeneity. The close position also might reveal the smallest of errors / mishaps, which may be unnoticeable for the majority of the audience. I’m trying my best to abstract from these potential pitfalls of the close-up experience.

I. Marcia: Allegro

Such joyful, unencumbered music, full of verve and emphasis! It was indeed a joy to listen to the natural, harmonious playing of the ensemble! Here, and throughout the concert, I felt that the performance wasn’t aiming for polished perfection. The artists avoided “olympic” virtuosity, or excesses in tempo in general. I simply felt totally at ease with their approach to the interpretation. However, by no means I want to say that the performance was just “normal” or “average”, let alone “nothing special”! It simply felt as if the artists were equally enjoying the composition and performing it. And the audience felt the same.

I experienced the ensemble sound as warm, yet grippy. The performance was clear, the many sfp stood out nicely, without making the music sound clumsy. Above all, though, I enjoyed the very economic use of vibrato. Often enough, it was hardly noticeable, and it rarely affected the purity in the intonation. The articulation was light, but always natural, never exceedingly “sharp”.

Balance?

Throughout the Beethoven Serenade, I noted a slight dominance of the violin. This was followed by the cello, while the viola to me appeared slightly underrepresented. I say this with some reservation, given what I stated above. Indeed, I attribute this to the composition, more than to my position or an imbalance in the volume. Beethoven’s viola part simply is a tad secondary. In fact, the viola has few prominent solo segments. It mostly either follows the violin, or fills the harmonies above the cello.

Adagio

The Adagio takes us from the boisterous world of the Marcia to a truly intimate, cosy atmosphere. Besides, the gentle lyricism of the violin, this is the one movement in this composition where the listener gets to enjoy the sound of the viola. And indeed, Veronika Hagen’s instrument offered pure pleasure, with its mellow, characteristic timbre.

The Adagio may sound simple. It is very tricky to play, though, especially in the intonation, especially where the viola plays in parallel to either the viola or the cello. More than in the Marcia, I enjoyed the sparing use of vibrato (essentially limited to endings and long or emphasized notes). This was instrumental in keeping parallel lines clean. I experienced the intonation as near-perfect. In such passages, Veronika Hagen kept her part discreet. She never tried “showing off”!

II. Menuetto: Allegretto — TrioMenuetto da capo — Coda

Another fun movement! More of a Scherzo than a traditional Menuetto. The heavy, chordal accents strongly contrast with the lively passages, where the playful violin tries imitating the elegance of a dance. Jokingly, Beethoven “sabotages” these attempts by delayed entries in the other two voices!

The Trio keeps the lead in the violin voice: an “effort to follow conventions”? The return of the “Menuetto” of course defeats such illusion, returning to the “peasant dance”.

True Serenade atmosphere is offered in the short Coda: alternating motifs in viola and violin, pizzicato notes in the cello, ending in two soft arpeggio chords. This truly depicts the intimacy of a nightly gathering. In the end, the musicians disperse in the darkness, just to gather in another place? With this, the artists provoked a short smile in the audience: lovely!

III. Adagio – Scherzo: Allegro molto – Adagio – Allegro molto – Adagio

The Adagio segment may feel “harmless” on the surface. However, it is highly challenging in the intonation, with violin and viola moving in octave parallels throughout. Esther Hoppe and Veronika Hagen made this sound almost like in unison. The “almost” does not stand for imperfection (indeed, the intonation was excellent!). Rather, it refers to the eerie effect that these parallels create.

The two Scherzo segments are close to Haydn-esque jokes. Virtuosic staccati in the upper voices, with scarce staccato chords in the cello. These are consequently on the second beat, as if the cellist never managed to catch up with the others. Brilliant, and once more true fun!

IV. Allegretto alla polacca

Beethoven’s alla polacca has very little, if anything in common with what people expect of a Polonaise (such as Frédéric Chopin’s). Rather, it is a slightly heavy (if not clumsy) and rough country dance. This time, it is the viola which is “lagging behind”, with shifted rhythm and syncopes, while the cello is “on the beat”. The violin fluctuates between “on the beat” and syncopated accents. There is no point in polishing this to perfection! The simple, alternating quavers in the cello part, the rhythmic shifts, etc. make this sound like improvised music. With this, a certain roughness very much suits the character of this music!

The music turns almost hilarious when the cello suddenly takes over the solo part. It seems to offer a poor imitation of the violin in the high descant register. The violin then “rectifies” this caricature—briefly. After four bars, however, there’s another surprise. Suddenly, the movement changes style and atmosphere. The viola now takes over the accompaniment (broken chords in an undulating chain of quavers). At the same time, cello and violin alternate in a series of imitated motifs—elegant, refined, if not subtle. Of course, Beethoven wasn’t Beethoven if he didn’t return to the polacca theme. He even turned that into fun, ending the movement with another joke!

V. Andante quasi allegretto

A set of variations which gives every voice a chance to present itself, while the others perform the accompaniment. The theme and the first variation are “owned” by the violin. This was one of the few moments when to me the violin vibrato felt a bit strong. It wasn’t obtrusive, though. Variation 2: I really enjoyed the warm, mellow sound of Veroniky Hagen’s viola. The third variation is a kind of intermezzo—syncopated, agile.

Variation 4 belonged to the beautiful, singing sonority of Clemens Hagen’s Stradivarius cello. I really enjoyed this, and I loved the idea of a short cadenza at the fermata, prior to the transition to the Allegro part. The latter sounded as if Beethoven meant to prove that he can also write “in earnest”! the piece is elegant, sophisticated, stylish, not unlike much of Haydn’s chamber music.

However, a Tempo I part follows. It’s not a joke, but rather pensive, moody. It seemingly retracts into a subtle pp. The closing fermata feels like a question mark. Rather than resolving that last chord, Beethoven offers instant redemption by returning to the beginning:

VI. Marcia: Allegro

See above. A true “last dance” in the context of this Serenade. One should keep in mind that this is meant to be entertainment—at a high level, of course. And that’s what it undeniably is. The reaction of the audience proved that this still “works” now, after more than two centuries!

I really liked the interpretation of the three artists. Full of life, with the necessary sense of humor, and “down to earth”. Polished perfection would kill this music!

Rating: ★★★★

One last remark: I was very pleased to note that the artists observed every single repeat sign—in all movements. Thanks!


Mozart: Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed close to 30 Divertimenti for various instrumental settings. Most of these are from the years 1771 – 1780. After this, only few works in that genre followed. The last one is the Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563 from 1788. It also features 6 movements:

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Adagio (3/4)
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto (3/4) – Trio (3/4)
  4. Andante (theme and 7 variations, 2/4)
  5. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio I – Trio II (3/4)
  6. Allegro (6/8)

For more information see my earlier concert review from 2019-07-21.

The Performance

Right from the first bars, one could feel that the artists are “at home” in Mozart’s music! For one, the Hagen’s natives of Salzburg, just like Mozart. The Hagen Quartett has recorded all of Mozart’s string quartets. This was the crown of their early career. Then, all three of this concert’s musicians are currently teaching at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. They are familiar with each other, and Mozart is their “second nature”.

I. Allegro

As stated, the above was obvious from the very beginning. So harmonious the articulation, the lively, yet careful dynamics, the natural agogics. To my pleasure, the balance was much better here! For one, this proves that the three instruments were on a par in terms of quality, sound / clarity, projection. Clearly, in Beethoven’s Serenade, the occasional, apparent imbalance is in the composer’s writing. Mozart allegedly liked to play the viola part in the Divertimento himself. This is one more reason why the three parts are absolutely equivalent in this composition.

In fact, I could not tell which instrument sounded “best”. Clemens Hagen’s cello exhibited its well-rounded, warm sonority, always clear, also in the lowest register, never exceedingly bulbous. Veronika Hagen’s viola pleased with its equally warm singing and the characteristic viola sonority (without being too nasal). There are many imitations / dialogs between violin and viola in this movement. There, the two instruments could not have been matching any better—in sonority, volume/projection, and articulation.

Mozart’s mastership also shows in the audacious, if not revolutionary harmonic moves in the development part. Simply put: a masterpiece!

II. Adagio

Such serene, heavenly music, a perfectly equilibrated dialog, gentle, subtle in the dynamics! And highly demanding for the artists: very exposed in very voice, challenging in the intonation. Even just keeping the calm in this long movement isn’t easy. Needless to say that the artists successfully avoided any “run-away tempo”. The one moment when the tempo was slightly faster (at the f climax in the exposition and equivalent moments in the second part) was clearly intentional. This perfectly fitted the drama of the moment.

Here, the vibrato was slightly stronger, but still mostly on long and/or highlighted notes. And never obtrusive. Everything was a perfect fit. The tempo management, the balance and careful dynamics, the gentle articulation. Music that one could listen to on end.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio

As if Mozart was thinking ahead: also this isn’t a typical Menuetto. Rather, it’s a peasant dance—unpolished, if not occasionally slightly rough. It’s momentarily a bit clumsy, but does have elegant, “gallant” moments, too, though. As in Beethoven’s Scherzo-like movements, the three artists did not try polishing away rough edges. To me, they perfectly caught the character of that movement.

The Trio is more subtle, gentle: a contrast to the Menuetto. Mozart’s music is difficult, very exposed in the solo parts in all voices. And it’s in a key that is anything but comfortable on the violin family of instruments. However, the performance here was at the highest level, making the audience ignore any technical challenges.

IV. Andante

As already in the third movement of the Beethoven Serenade, viola and violin are often moving in octave of sixth parallels in the initial theme—highly critical in the intonation. In the variations, the violin often has the dominating part. I liked Esther Hoppe’s careful, yet natural articulation, throughout staccato / spiccato passages and huge jumps. However, cello and viola get their adequate share of “stage presence”—and technical challenges. As voices momentarily moved into foreground, it never felt as if that musician meant to dominate. “Perfect democracy in music”!

The Minore part (in B♭ minor!) was all restrained, very soft, as if played far away. Eerie atmosphere, tricky dissonances. Music like from another planet! Mozart could of course not leave it at that (particularly in a Divertimento, meaning amusement!). The final variation consists of a continuous line of staccato demisemiquavers in the violin and a jolly semiquaver accompaniment on the cello. And in-between, there is the viola with a solemn, chorale-like cantus firmus in half-notes and crotchets. In the Coda, the cantus firmus stops, the demisemiquavers first move to the viola, then into the cello voice. And the movement ends all gentle, pp.

V. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio I – Menuetto — Trio II — Menuetto — Coda

Again, not just an “easy minuet”! Also this second Menuetto seems to lean towards a peasant dance. It is a tad heavy. However, that’s in the music, not the performance. The character of the interpretation here perfectly suited the character of the music. Focusing on elegance would defeat the spirit of this movement.

The Trio I is a typical Ländler dance: slightly heavy. I enjoyed the carefully crafted dynamics. Unlike in the first Menuetto, both Trio don’t contrast in character: also Trio II reminds of a comfy peasant dance. The second part may even be seen as somewhat of a caricature with its exaggerations. The final pass of the Menuetto part mutates into a subtle Coda with a lovely ending.

VI. Allegro

A highly artful final movement! It is seemingly simple, serene, folksy in the Rondo theme, the melody in the violin. However, the episodes are virtuosic, often complex. One episode is a fugato, the final one an intricate interplay if shifted, syncopated motifs. A brilliant, masterful movement, for sure!

Rating: ★★★★★

Conclusions

Here now, the resolution why Mozart’s Divertimento appeared after Beethoven’s Serenade. The latter is entertainment music that Beethoven wrote in the early phase of his career. He hadn’t published any string quartet yet, let alone symphonies. Mozart, on the other hand, albeit still young, was at the peak of his mastership. And it’s for good reason that the Divertimento K.563 is generally regarded the crown of the genre.

There may have been one or the other, minor imperfection (minute mishaps even?) in this performance. However, what matters is what reaches the listener’s heart. To me, the Divertimento was a stellar experience, a truly great moment. It’s hard, if not impossible to explain what made me feel this way. However, it wasn’t just my perception. The people I talked to felt the same way, and the applause confirmed it, too. Thanks to artists and organizers for this concert and opportunity!


Author: Rolf Kyburz

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