The Quartet Week Podcast with Anthea Kreston: More than Just Technique: The Hagen Quartett

“In the end what we do is moving our fingers and bow arms. That’s all we do when we play string quartet,” says Rainer Schmidt in conversation with Anthea Kreston in episode #10 of our Quartet Week Podcast. Together with the three siblings Lukas, Veronika, and Clemens Hagen, he has been performing as second violinist in one of the world’s most renowned string quartets, the Hagen Quartett, since 1987. While studying in the U.S., he realized how essential and at the same time secondary these technical and mechanical aspects of music-making are: “The greatest sound, the greatest expression we can produce on a string instrument is in the end the result of a correct mechanical movement. It’s complex, but it’s still objectively true, and that this is where America was really strong.”

But this insight alone does not really help: “How to get there is the difficult thing to explain. If I could explain it, all my students would be the best violinists in the world and I myself would be the best.” Thinking in purely mechanical terms of course is not enough: “We want to have good mechanics in order to express this wonderful music. But if there’s no understanding whatsoever any more of what this music is about, I think it’s basically a waste of time.” Especially in an ensemble, where the physical movement of several people needs to be synchronized in a certain way, some form of collective, shared understanding of what the music created together actually means is indispensable. “What is there in music to listen to? Of course, what we hear are different sounds that we can objectify in certain ways: they can be loud, they can be soft, harsh, or whatever. But they all seem to point to something that is very far beyond the sounds themselves, to a form of communication that is deeply human.”

Complex and erratic works like Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor Op. 131—which was part of the Hagen Quartett’s program on June 16, bringing the Quartet Week at the Pierre Boulez Saal to a close—at first seem to hamper that kind of communication: “I would think that [of all the pieces on this program] the Beethoven is the most difficult to understand. But I wonder why that would be, because when we analyze the piece, there’s nothing really  outrageous in it. We have fast movements and slow movements, eight-bar, 12-bar, and 16-bar phrases, sonata movements and fugues—but still it seems so different, not only from what Beethoven and others had composed before, but different even from anything that was composed afterward. I wonder if that has to do with the fact that Beethoven’s communication with other human beings was so severely impaired by his deafness for many years. Maybe this strange connection to other human beings also influenced his way of communicating through music.”


Hagen Quartett

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György Kurtág

Hommage à Mihály András

Twelve Microludes for String Quartet Op. 13

Dmitri Shostakovich

String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor Op. 138

Ludwig van Beethoven

String Quartet in C-sharp minor Op. 131

Approximate running time: 1h 45m with one intermission

The Hagen Quartett examines three works that, each in their own way, have expanded the form of the string quartet. In his 12 Microludes, György Kurtág replaces the progression of several movements with a sequence of highly concentrated musical fragments, while Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13 merges its thematic content into a single long, somber movement. The internal subdivisions of Beethoven’s Opus 131, on the other hand, are so idiosyncratic as to seem almost arbitrary—fragmentation and consolidation here go hand in hand.

At the end of the season, the Quartet Week casts a spotlight on what many consider to be the quintessential chamber music format. Between June 7 and 16, eleven extraordinary international ensembles will explore both the historical development and the vast emotional scope of the string quartet genre in the intimate space of the Pierre Boulez Saal.