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William Bender
American Record Guide, March 2011

Well worth the attention of anyone looking for an expert, well-recorded, low-priced album of this great music, the complete string quartets of Béla Bartók. …the sound has a brilliant, robust quality when appropriate, tender and delicate elsewhere. Most important of all is the uncommonly exciting and fleet-fingered playing of the Hagen, one of Europe’s finest, most versatile quartets. From the neo-romantic plaints of 1:I to the supreme sadness of the finale of Quartet 6, this is elegant, powerful Bartók.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, October 2010

…Newton’s fine-sounding reissue if anything increases my admiration for the quartet’s technical agility and feel for Bartók’s idiom, whether in the romance-inspired reverie of the First Quartet, the mystical paragraphs and racy folk dances of the Second, the challenging experimentation of the middle two or the mixture of pathos and humour that characterises the last two. Colour is, as I say, very much the Hagen’s thing, widely spaced dynamics too, which are vividly projected; and where keeping to the letter matters most, they don’t disappoint either.

Calum MacDonald
BBC Music Magazine, October 2010

The Hagens provide tremendous fire and virtuosity, but also total accuracy and technical finesse, in these great works. They also show plenty of sensitivity and insight into the more reflective movements.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, September 2010

These 1995 and 1998 performances of the complete Bartok string quartets remind us of Bartok’s two sources of musical debt—to Beethoven and to Debussy—that permeate his six inventions in the quartet medium. To this alchemical mix we must add the strong Magyar folk factor, a rustic asymmetry and modal harmony that permits Bartok a dynamic expressivity in his learned style. There are moments—as in the First Quartet—that Clemens Hagen’s cello bursts forth as if he were performing the Debussy Cello Sonata or one of Beethoven’s Op. 102 sonatas. The Op. 7 First Quartet (1909) pays homage to the Beethoven Op. 131, certainly, but its emotional range has become more rarified, the timbres colored by a desire for light, something from Turner or El Greco in terms of textural weightlessness. The severe innigkeit of the second movement—its radical inwardness—even in the explosive first violin part of Lukas Hagen, falls back on itself, a musical equivalent to a fevered dream from Kafka or Loti. The plucking motif hearkens to Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 1, but the mood remains feverish or detached, as of one self-absorbed in the whole-tone scales Debussy used for Mallarme.

The last movement exploits the Hagen’s capacity for bravura ensemble, brisk, light, vivid, and often ‘symphonic’ in texture.

The Op. 17 Second Quartet (1915–1917) withdraws at first from the folk impulse, Bartok’s opting for classical procedures and an occasional interruption in the chromatic flux by diatonic harmonies and guitar effects in the cello, a legacy of the Debussy Cello Sonata. Again, like Debussy, Bartok has given over his dramatic power to sheer expressivity, the first violin often speaking as a concertante instrument, weaving a sad melody in the midst of sweltering emotions. The Allegro molto capriccioso, however, saws and reels with feral gypsy and folk energies, almost spiteful in its driven insistence on askew units of rhythm, clusters of sound and flippant effects. The movement ends most audaciously, in a hurried whisper, accelerando, perhaps Bartok’s equivalent for Macbeth’s “foul whisperings are abroad.” That the agonized music ends with an extended Lento seems to correspond to works by Tchaikovsky and Mahler, in which the sense of idiosyncratic prayer manifests itself in an anxious world, music pointing to Ligeti and Shostakovich.

The Quartet No. 4 (1927), like its predecessor, found inspiration in Berg’s Lyric Suite as well as in the arch forms of Beethoven and Baroque models. The discursive martial opening Allegro injects gruff sforzandos that infiltrate the last movement, too. The weird slides and punctuations contribute to the uneasy world we inhabit, best realized by Schiele, Munch, and Kokoschka’s paintings. The Hagen Quartet eschews any notion of “romantic” style in this acerbic rigid world, almost a Hungarian version of a “white period” Stravinsky ballet. The Prestissimo movement, while it takes its cue from Beethoven (Op. 59, No. 3), asks for mutes throughout its impish scurrying. The fourth movement parallels the second by having the Hagens play pizzicato. The Non troppo lento, however, instantiates Bartok’s capacity for “night music,” the notes etched in the viola (Veronika Hagen) or singing cello without vibrato. The brilliantly played Allegretto pizzicato repeats the second movement as dynamic orgy in otherwise “serenade” terms of plucked and strummed strings. The Allegro molto raises the roof with a rhythmic verve and instrumental colloquy we know from Allegro barbaro and the First Piano Concerto.

The briefest of the set, the Third Quartet (1926) proves his most extreme experiment in musical compression, as if Beethoven’s Op. 95 had collided with Webern. The idea of one extended movement divided into four parts belongs to Schubert and to Liszt, and then on to Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. Emotional fury manages to invade Bartok’s eerie world, a mix of folk idioms and diatonism presented in small tonal clusters or effects, like sul ponticello or col legno. Concentration and variation mark the so-called Ricapitulazione, the Hagen busy at every turn with shifts of dynamics and metric pulse, the glissandos alone worth the price of admission. The delicately-scored Fifth Quartet (1934) exhibits another arch form, the opening movement a series of razor attacks executed in blistering fashion juxtaposed against a lyrical drone tune that might pay homage to the hurdy-gurdy. This same effect spills into the Concerto for Orchestra as well as the Fifth Quartet‘s last movement. Bartok’s loves to invert his melodic groups, even as the five movements outline a whole-tone scale in honor of the master Debussy. The respective Adagio and Andante contribute to Bartok’s night music legacy, forlorn and dissonant. The “tribal” thrill comes in the central Scherzo: Alla bulgarese in metric units of 4+2+3 that the Hagens execute with suave humorous finesse. The level of virtuosity in the last movement literally defies any attempt to define its mercurial deftly protean power.

The Sixth Quartet (1939) employs a sad (Mesto) opening in each movement, alternating the instrument that dominates, such a first violin, viola, or cello. Within the unfaltering gloom of the “experimental” concept lies the essential irony that a wide range of emotion—including rapture, joy, and optimistic yearning—manage to find expressive possibilities in what must qualify as a threnody for Humanity on the eve of WW II. The late Beethoven ethos prevails, as Bartok offers kernels of introspective melody or rhythmic cells that suddenly explode for several measures until they dissipate into an ongoing—often contrapuntal—progression of varied affects. The Hagen Quartet’s realization of the extended second movement, Mesto—Marcia rings with a visceral authority, with piercing dialogues between violins Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt, and long edgy strokes from Veronika and Clemens Hagen. By the time we traverse the ensuing dance like Burletta and valedictory finale, Mesto—Molto tranquillo, we acknowledge a master of a rarified and multifaceted universe, ardent, driven, and at long last, infinitely forgiving.

Blair Sanderson, August 2010

There’s little doubt that the Hagen Quartet has the skills to deliver this music with accuracy and the physical stamina to play with the steadiness such difficult music requires. However, this is in many places a surprisingly subdued interpretation of the quartets, perhaps more oriented toward the melancholy strain that runs through Bartók’s music, rather than toward the vigorous or caustic sides of his genius. To be sure, the Hagen Quartet ignites in crucial places, and when it has to be direct and forceful, it gets the job done. But the feelings this set communicates are...pensive and brooding...This, naturally, is fairly suitable in the string quartets, Nos. 1, 2, and 6, which are among Bartók’s more depressed expressions...Listeners will certainly derive much pleasure from particular movements in these performances...

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