A cynic was once defined as somebody “whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Truth be told, having sat through hundreds of uninspiring, unimaginative and downright insulting performances of classical music, it’s getting rather more difficult to put on the rose-colored glasses! Yet on exceedingly very rare occasions, what you actually see and hear is conceptually exactly what it ought to be. It so happened on 6 October 2015 in Hong Kong’s City Hall. The Hagen Quartet with clarinetist Jörg Widmann presented two warhorses of the chamber music repertoire, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 131. By itself not the most inspired programing, yet the performance and interpretation allowed this old cynic to hear things that he simply had not heard before!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No. 19, “Dissonance” (Hagen Quartet)
Although I know both compositions rather well, two aspects of the interpretation particularly struck me. For one, the ensemble completely de-emphasized structural divisions and musical periodicity. Instead of steadily moving from one structural signpost to the next, the music unfolded in a continuous stream of dynamically nuanced and highly refined sound events. Repetition of phrases and transitional passages became exciting opportunities to look at related musical shapes from completely different musical angles. This utterly fascinating musical storytelling—sounding operatic allusions that fluidly intersperse theatrical grandeur with moments of pensive contemplation and personal reflection in Mozart, and the intense probing of the increasingly complex psychological expressions in Beethoven’s late quartet—was made audible by a sublime blending and voicing of instrumental colors. The music simply exploded into a kaleidoscope of minute acoustic brushstrokes that never lost track of the overall narrative. It was particularly gratifying to see a substantial number of young listeners in the audience, and seemingly, everybody was just as mesmerized and captivated. Listening to classical music in a formal setting—without purple hairdos, exposed body parts or special personal pleading—is only one way of enjoying this rich and varied heritage of human creativity. However, if the music itself is the expressed focal point of the evening, the kind of interpretation offered by the Hagen Quartet and Jörg Widman is the only type of performance we should reasonably tolerate. Beyond pretty packaging and promotional hype, the extraordinary vividness and timeless quality of this glorious and multi-faceted music will undoubtedly continue to attract and fascinate future generations of listeners.
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