Beethoven: String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 38
Webern: String Quartet (1905)
Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, L 85, Op. 10
After the Festival de Pâques's grand-scale Brahms concert on Friday night, my mom and I were looking forward to downsizing in terms of venue and ensemble, but certainly not in terms of quality, with the eminent Salzburgians of the Hagen Quartet and a particularly appealing program that included early works by Beethoven, Webern and Debussy. Even better, the performance would take place in the historical, intimate and beautiful Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, one of Aix-en-Provence's countless gems, so that’s where we headed after a fun spin around the popular open-air market on cours Mirabeau.
Although the evening before we had more or less unwittingly found ourselves two rows from the stage, this time we were perched right in the middle of the first row in the second balcony, which was as ideal a location as could be as far as I was concerned. We felt all the more fortunate for our premium seats as the roughly 500-seat hall was filled to the brim, even though the starting time of noon coincided with the sacrosanct French lunch hour. You know something special is happening with music trumps food in France.
Ludwig van Beethoven may be more famous for his symphonies, but his chamber music output is about just as dazzling, and the concert started with a superb example of it. Written when the composer was in his late twenties, his String Quartet No. 3 already shows a remarkable mastery of his craft and some even more remarkable joie de vivre. Although the first three movements are fairly conventional, they still stand out for their subtlety and gentleness, before all caution is swiftly thrown to the wind during the glorious home run that is the vigorously polyphonic Presto. The Hagen Quartet’s performance of the attractive piece was precise and engaging, the tight ensemble consistently making sure to highlight all the many appealing facets of the impressive effort.
We remained firmly on Viennese territory but fast-forwarded over a century to Anton Webern and his deeply atmospheric String Quartet, which was originally inspired by a triptych by Italian painter Giovanni Segantini entitled “Alpenlandschaft” (alpine landscape), whose three distinct sections Life/Nature/Death are reflected in the three sections of the one-movement composition. Unsurprisingly, the crafty combination of the mighty Beethovian struggle toward victory and the Romantic tradition's heart-felt expressiveness was superbly brought out by the four string players.
From early 20th century Vienna we went slightly back in time to late 19th century Paris with a brilliant performance of Claude Debussy’s one and only String Quartet. Although they were not well-received when the work first came out, the poetic themes, unusual rhythms and occasionally downright eerie sonorities sounded as fresh and ground-breaking on Saturday afternoon as they ever could. Boldly emphasizing the possibilities of flexibility over rigidity, Debussy created a new world of sounds that the Hagen Quartet treated with all the deference, expertise and commitment it deserves.
The musicians had been playing with no intermission for one and half memorable hour, and I was ready to forgive them if they decided to skip the encores. But, amazingly enough, they did not and treated the ecstatic audience to a glowing reading of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. And just like that, we were in for another round of fin de siècle French musical entertainment that came with a delightful flurry of pizzicatos