The Hagen Quartet seems to have had a limited but illustrious run on DG; they began a complete Shostakovich cycle with this CD, recorded in 1993-94, but added only one other installment (of Qts. 3, 7, and 8). A shame, because their voice is quite different from the Emersons, whose famous cycle on DG no doubt eclipsed this one. The Hagens are subtler, more nuanced, yet also more modern in their willingness to give Shostakovich's existential bleakness full play. In chronology the earlier quartets are cut from the fully expressive, open-hearted middle period in which the composer poured his soul out, while the later quartets are grayer, spare and death-haunted. The Hagens think twice about this depiction, however, and they bring hushed, ghostly tone to the Fourth Qt. from 1949, linking it up psychologically with the Fourteenth.
The Gramophone critic, although admiring, complained that the cellist wasn't forceful or dramatic enough. There is something plain-faced about his solos in the Fourth, but isn't this deliberate? The whole approach of the Hagens involves finding unexpected moods and half lights. the multi-hued Eleventh Qt. is full of mood swings, and it would be hard to swing more starkly and dramatically than this reading does. I've been dazzled by the Emersons' Shostakovich, but I've never felt that it was psychological, whereas the Hagens eminently are. The composer is subversive, at times furtive about what he feels exactly, but they make sure that he is dug from his hiding place. The Fourteenth Qt. is as forbiddingly forlorn as much else in late Shostakovich. I won't pretend to have divined it fully, but something tells me that this reading has, and one day I will know why.
P.S. 2011 - Readers should be aware of a mid-price reissue on the Newton label. Also, the early-90s digital sound gets notably edgy and glassy at high volume.