Bach / Shostakovich / Schubert
Kirche Burg, Stein am Rhein, 2017-10-01
The last concert in this year’s short series of “Schaffhauser Meisterkonzerte 2017“ did not take place in Schaffhausen itself, but in the little, historic town of Stein am Rhein, some 20 km further up at the river Rhine, close to where the Rhine leaves the Untersee, downstream from the Lake of Constance. Stein am Rhein is a touristic marvel at the North shore of the Rhine. It is full of nicely preserved buildings—lacking the surrounding wall, though. Most facades around the market place are full of frescoes. They depict the history of the town. The place is definitely worth a visit, despite the crowds of visitors!
Within Stein am Rhein, the concert wasn’t actually in the little town itself. It rather happened across the bridge, on the South shore, in the location of an ancient Roman castle, on the top of a hill. In the center of the remains of that Roman castle (3rd century a.D.), a church (Johanneskirche, now known as Kirche Burg) has been erected, for which the oldest mentions date back to 799. The basic structure (ceiling, arches) is late Roman / early Gothic style, the frescoes date back to the 15th century. As a concert venue, that church is near-ideal, featuring better acoustics, and offering a more intimate, atmospheric setting than the previous two concert in the series, on 2017-09-19 and 2017-09-23, which took place in the much bigger church St.Johann in Schaffhausen.
The concert happened on the afternoon of a marvelous early autumn Sunday, with blue sky and balmy temperatures. Around the concert and during the intermission, one could—somewhat snobbishly, and undisturbed by tourists—enjoy the view down to the old town on the other side of the Rhine, with its visitor crowds.
I have written about the Hagen Quartett in numerous blog posts with CD reviews (mostly on works by Beethoven and Mozart), so won’t repeat myself here, but I should mention that the quartet consists of the following members:
- Lukas Hagen, violin
- Rainer Schmidt, violin
- Veronika Hagen, viola
- Clemens Hagen, cello
The ensemble was founded 1981 in Salzburg, as a quartet of four siblings. Out of the original members, Angelika Hagen left, and ultimately, in 1987, Rainer Schmidt stepped in for her. For the past few years, the quartet has been playing on a set of Stradivarius instruments that previously had been used by the Paganini Quartet, the Cleveland String Quartet, and the Tokyo String Quartet.
In the last years of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) composed a series of contrapuntal works (fugues, canons) on a common theme, organized in growing complexity (whereby the extra complexity involves adding additional themes, to form double and triple fugues, etc.). Bach did not complete this collection of pieces—the (presumably) last fugue remained incomplete.
In one single piece, Contrapunctus XIII, Bach wrote “for two keyboards”. With that one exception, none of the pieces appears to be for specific instruments. The voices are on one separate line each. The clefs suit their tonal range, but don’t lead to specific instrument assignments. So, for good reasons, “Die Kunst der Fuge” can be regarded one of the prime examples of “absolute” music, an intellectual construct, in fact.
With this, one can justify a wide range of instrumentations for performing these pieces (“anything goes”, some might claim), with the one exception of Contrapunctus XIII. Some may even postulate that Bach did not go as far as thinking about practical performances, leaving the collection as theoretical exercise? Performances on string instruments are certainly as legitimate as playing this music on an organ, or on one or multiple keyboards.
Bach was not able to publish what he called “The Art of the Fugue”. As a result, multiple editors published the collection by ordering them according to their personal logic. What remains of Bach’s manuscript is incomplete and does not offer conclusive guidelines on how to order the fugues. The program for this concert mentioned “Contrapunctus I” up to “Contrapunctus IV“, i.e., the first four fugues in the collection. These labels are somewhat misleading:
- the edition by Bärenreiter (TP 26) follows the sequence in the first edition and starts with four fugues, labeled “Contrapunctus 1” up to “Contrapunctus 4” (Arabic numbers)
- according to the same score (Bärenreiter), this corresponds to numbers I, III, and II in Bach’s manuscript, where “Contrapunctus 4” is absent. (II and III in reversed order).
The Selection Played in this Concert
What we actually heard are the following fugues, using the Bärenreiter nomenclature (contrapunctus 1, …). Note that the “simple” does not mean “trivial”, but is there to differentiate these pieces from double and triple fugues, i.e., fugues with multiple themes.
- (Ms.I): simple fugue, 4 voices, about the theme in its original form
- (Ms.II): simple fugue, 4 voices, about the inversion of the theme
- (Ms.III): simple fugue, 4 voices, about the theme in its original form
- (no Ms.): simple fugue, 4 voices, about the inversion of the theme
In this sequence, 3 and 4 seem to mirror 1 and 2—but in both, the comes (the immediate continuation of the theme head, forming the accompaniment to the following occurrence of the theme) is different, more complex (e.g., punctuated). One should note that Bach did not add any dynamic and tempo annotations, he even left out virtually all annotation about articulation, such as ligatures.
The Hagen Quartett performed these fugues in a rather fluent tempo, but still calm, with a resting attitude, devoid of unnecessary drama and excitement. Each of the fugues appeared in a single, big, compelling phrasing arch, and the articulation was so simple and clean, that I even tended to object to Lukas Hagen’s barely noticeable, merely hinted vibrato! A few details on the four fugues:
- Avoiding excess dynamics, fluent, but quiet, mostly portato, no attempt to “homophonize” the fugue, i.e., each of the voices followed its own phrasing arch, except of course around the sudden general rest near the end—a “little dramatic highlight” in Bach’s score.
- Here, the articulation was a tad more legato, despite a, always clear, often slightly percussive articulation on the individual note. Even though I sensed more of an overall phrase, this felt more calm than the first fugue.
- Along with the faster tempo, the punctuations in the comes made this appear much more vivid, lively. Yet, the interpretation remained very compelling, in a single dramatic arch.
- The most complex of the four fugues (naturally, I should say), again more legato than its predecessor. It’s also the longest of the four pieces, with more than one climax.
Even though these were just the simplest four among Bach’s collection of fugues, it is amazing how much complexity, richness in polyphonic textures these pieces offer to the listener! At the same time, listening to these fugues proved to be an ideal mechanism to detach from the hectic day-to-day life. It allowed the listener to dive into the world of music, to let one’s mind come to a rest, and to focus on the performance! The Hagen Quartett kept this as “absolute music” in the best and purest sense of the word.
Shostakovich: String Quartet No.15 in E♭ minor, op.144
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) has written 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets: String Quartet No.15 in E♭ minor, op.144, his last contribution to the genre, premiered in November 1974, half a year after its completion. The Wikipedia article characterizes it as “an introspective meditation on mortality”. The movement titles are a clear indication for this already. The quartet has six movements, all annotated Adagio (one even Adagio molto), and all following each other attacca, without any interruption:
- Elegy: Adagio –
- Serenade: Adagio –
- Intermezzo: Adagio –
- Nocturne: Adagio –
- Funeral March: Adagio molto –
- Epilogue: Adagio
For the Hagen Quartett, Bach’s four fugues weren’t just the introduction to the quartet recital—they also served as “lead-in” to Shostakovich’s last quartet. After the fugues, the artists didn’t lower the bows, but rather (imaginatively) held their breath for a few seconds (preventing any applause), then began the first movement of Shostakovich’s op.144. The change from D major (the final chord in Bach’s fugue #4) to E♭ minor may seem tricky, challenging: it certainly isn’t a “natural transition”. However, the gap between the two works was just long enough to make the audience adapt to Shostakovich’s tonality in an instant, and it seemed to work out perfectly!
I. Elegy: Adagio –
The piece begins calm and pp, without any vibrato—and excellent fit and follow-up to the Bach fugues, in its attitude. At the same time, of course, this expanded the scope of expression. Vibrato was used selectively, momentarily, to highlight the peak of a phrase or specific notes. However, throughout the piece it never tried approaching the strength, the intensity that is often observed with older, traditional ensembles (particularly those of the “Russian School”): it seemed that the Hagen Quartett was (successfully) seeking “intensity in simplicity”. To me, this seemed to be an excellent approach: achieving a maximum in effect with a minimum of expressive playing—absolute music, still, very simple in texture, presented in a void, a vacuum, almost.
The first violin introduces a melody line in seemingly endless phrases, expressive, occasionally using a subtle portamento. In its simplicity and naturalness, that melody line sometimes reminded of a Ranz des vaches (Kuhreihen). Yet, Shostakovich did of course not abandon his harmonic idiom.
Clearly, this is meditative music in its extreme, pensive, reduced to the absolute minimum, reflecting about the last things in life. As simple as it sounded, the performance was very touching, but never excessively sentimental. And it captured the listener’s ear, especially in its softest, almost whispered passages.
II. Serenade: Adagio –
Even though still Adagio, the Serenade introduces a stark contrast, successively, each instrument is playing long notes with a very strong crescendo, starting pp at the tip of the bow, then gradually increasing the pressure of the bow, while moving it closer to the bridge—to a degree that makes the sound end in a deliberately ugly, loud scratching noise, rich in harmonics. Later, these notes lead into almost explosive, ripped pizzicato.
Initially, the music is mostly in single voices, and despite the above feature, it retains the almost folkloric motifs: the music remains reduced to the bare minimum. Intensity is achieved through the contrast between the basic, almost serene atmosphere and the extremes in articulation. The Hagen Quartett lived, internalized this concept: they averted any temptation to generate additional intensity through (unnecessary) vibrato or extra dynamic “features” such as swelling or bulge notes. Yet, it was anything but playing in an ivory tower!
III. Intermezzo: Adagio –
The Intermezzo is Adagio only in the calm, resting accompaniment in the cello—on top of that, the first violin erupts into a wild, virtuosic segment, like the outbreak of a catastrophe—but this remains a short episode:
IV. Nocturne: Adagio –
The Nocturne is music like from another world, music from beyond: an elegiac, melancholic mourning song (and sometimes dialog), often whispered in flageolet tones and played with mutes (con sordino).
V. Funeral March: Adagio molto –
Shostakovich wrote an unusual funeral march. the march rhythm appears in mere fragments, in intermittent, short rhythmic segments. In major parts of the movement there are intense, expressive melodies on the cello, mostly solo. We heard them with flawless intonation. Then, the first violin takes over, again with folklorist, Ranz des vaches-like, modulating melody segments, which then migrate back to the cello. Then, the march rhythm shows up as pizzicato on the cello, before that voice returns to the melancholic melody, fading away.
VI. Epilogue: Adagio
After the initial chord, the first violin breaks out into an intense, tremolo-rich solo, like a short, virtuosic cadenza, which is later mirrored by the cello. One should keep in mind that Shostakovich’s quartet is in the really “nasty” key of E♭ minor, uncomfortable to play on string instruments. The flawless intonation throughout this work gave another, strong indication for the ensemble’s mastership and experience. This persisted through the end of the movement, which alternates between shimmering tremolo episodes and periods with melancholic, singing melody lines. Gradually, these melodies seem to retract, give in, finally resigning and/or moving into a world beyond.
Sure, it’s a work without positive, forward-looking ending—nevertheless, I found the interpretation intense and compelling throughout, the music really touching!
After the intermission, the program continued its journey around the last things in life, following up on Bach’s last and ultimate collection of fugues, and Shostakovich’s last string quartet, in itself a reflection on death. Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote his String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden”, in 1824, at a point in his life, where the composer just recovered from a serious illness, realized that he would not life for many more years. The quartet has four movements:
- Allegro (4/4)
- Andante con moto (2/2)
- Scherzo: Allegro molto (3/4)
- Presto (6/8)
The central movement, Andante con moto, is a set of variations on a theme that Schubert took from his Lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen“ (Death and the Maiden—hence the title of the quartet), D.531, after a poem by Matthias Claudius (1740 – 1815).
Just like the preceding work by Shostakovich, Schubert’s quartet is a dialog with the world beyond. However, at least from the classic, familiar language and “envelope”, it seems closer to real life. It is a far more direct expression of the composer’s longing, the sadness, his anguish, anxiety and suffering, his rebelling fight against the certainty of an untimely death.
The Hagen Quartett likes a fluent, if not fast tempo—the opening movement is not exception to this: fluent, targeted, yet never pushing, but resolute in Schubert’s frequent punctuations. Again, they used minimal vibrato and avoided dynamic exaggerations: sometimes, they merely seemed to hint at Schubert’s crescendo–decrescendo forks (“<” and “>”). Their playing was perfectly in tune in dynamics, and in the fine, subtle agogics. In particular, I noted the perfect coordination and intonation in the duets between the viola and either violin II or later violin I.
I particularly liked the coda: high in tension and virtually without vibrato up to the short più mosso. the latter is merely a short rebellion, after which the movement fades away in resignation.
II. Andante con moto
Given the length of the evening, it is understandable that the artists did not repeat the exposition in the opening movement. However, the artists followed all repeat signs in the Andante con moto. That is the variation movement with the melody from the Lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen“. In the theme, the quartet used a very soft articulation, a mellow portato, even gentler, more pp, if not ppp in the repeat of the theme.
The playing remained unpretentious, without exaggeration in esthetics or elegance: pure expression, devoid of academic “ex cathedra” attitude. Even in the G major variation, which feels as if a window into a world beyond opened, there was no unnecessary sweetness, let alone mawkishness. However, by no means was the interpretation ever distanced, technical, let alone cold. Towards the end, when the movement seems to waft into other spheres, all in ppp, the vibrato almost disappears, though it does highlight the warmth of the short crescendo in the last two bars.
III. Scherzo: Allegro molto
The Scherzo part is very dramatic, with syncopes fighting against on-the-beat sforzati. The tempo here was fast, virtuosic, without excess emphasis. The Trio (in D major) presents a strong contrast. Once more, the interpretation was anything but mawkish: it rather appeared like an eerie vision, in a strangely retained atmosphere, with the melody in the first violin sliding along, shivering, as if trembling in anxiety.
As I expected, the tempo in the final movement was neck-breaking. The quavers often seemed to be close to the technical limits. However, they could just still be articulated. But the interpretation remained under sufficient technical control, did not exaggerate in the dynamic, retained agogic freedom without excess pathos. In other words: the playing was both expressive and precise, not pushed or rushed. It was also not trying to exhibit mere, polished perfection.
Overall, the Hagen Quartett presented a compelling, very consistent and convincing interpretation—expectedly with world-class mastership, proving that they are one of today’s top ensembles!
Encore — Schubert: String Quartet No.10 in E♭ major, D.87, Scherzo
The artists responded to the strong applause with an encore, again by Franz Schubert: the third movement, Scherzo: Prestissimo from the String Quartet No.10 in E♭ major, D.87. This is a rather playful, joking piece, a true Scherzo: Schubert wrote it at age 16—the stroke of a young genius. It is not loaded with drama and serious emotions, yet, it seemed to fit well. It offered some relief after the death-laden character of the preceding works in this concert.
The Hagen Quartett is looking back to a career of 36 yea. Even Rainer Schmidt has now been part of the team for 30 years. It’s both the common roots in the Hagen family, as well as the decades of playing together which have internalized questions of interpretation, of intonation, tempo and coordination.
With this, intense visual contacts in a performance seem unnecessary: the three siblings in particular seem focused on their individual playing (and following the notation), entirely absorbed by the performance. It felt like a sworn group of artists, mentally and emotionally resting in itself. It almost looked as if the artists didn’t notice the presence of an audience. Of course, that definitely was not the case: in such concerts, musicians and audience form a common entity in which both parts mutually stimulate each other. That is especially true for chamber music events, even more so in small, intimate venues such as this one.
Unknowingly, even people who thought they were “just consuming music” contributed to the spirit and the success of this evening. They helped creating a rewarding, rich concert experience, offering transcendence and musical subtlety at the highest level.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.