20th Century String Quartets
As far as recordings of twentieth-century music are concerned, the Hagen Quartet have not been among the more adventurous ensembles, and Michael Oliver regarded their foray into the quartets Janacek quartets (DG, 1/90) as tending to ''over-statement'' and ''impulsive exaggeration''.
The three works on their new disc are in certain respects well chosen to channel such impulsiveness in the most positive way. Ligeti's early quartet is actually not as episodic as its frequent shifts of tempo and mood might suggest, and the Hagen performance gets to the heart of the music's wayward but well-wrought continuities. Occasionally, as when Ligeti asks for a massive slowing-up at the end of the Adagio mesto section (track 1, index 4: 3'29'') you may well feel that a stronger sense of parody would not come amiss, since part of the piece's appeal is in its way of getting close to sending up its main model—Bartok—without ever lapsing into crude pastiche. But in general this is a convincing journey through an attractive, multifaceted score, and the wide-ranging recording conveys a no less extensive variety of tone-colours.
Alongside the Ligeti, Lutoslawski's Quartet—for all the freedom with respect to co-ordination it permits the players—is more single-minded, and much more so in this performance, which builds impressively integrated spans between the work's various high points, and culminates in a well-sustained projection of the final funebre section which gradually dissolves upwards into the air. As with the Ligeti there have been more fanciful, spontaneous accounts of this much-recorded quartet, but this one never lets you forget that Lutoslawski has the true breadth of a symphonist.
Finally, the sustained concentration of Schnittke's memorial canon for Stravinsky (1971), with its gradual accumulation and consequent release of tension, is especially well suited to the Hagen's style. Their blend of gravity and precision is exemplary.'