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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seven Last Words of Our Redeemer on the Cross
(Sedm posledních slov našeho Vykupitele na kříži) Hob.XX:1 (1785)
Prolog [0:56]
Introduzione [5:54]
Oratio Prima [1:21]
Sonata I [6:52]
Oratio Secunda [1:22]
Sonata II [7:03]
Oratio Tertia [1:06]
Sonate III [8:11]
Oratio Quarta [1:12]
Sonata IV [6:15]
Oratio Quinta [0:48]
Sonata V [6:26]
Oratio Sexta [0:35]
Sonata VI [6:49]
Oratio Septima [1:19]
Sonata VII [6:02]
Il Terremoto [1:54]
Epilog [0:57]
Alfred Strejček (narrator)
Janáček Quartet (Miloš Vacek (1st violin), Vítězslav Zavadilík (2nd violin), Ladislav Kyselák (viola), Břetislav Vybíral (cello))
rec. Archbishop Palace (Ceremonial Hall), Olomouc, 20-21 February 2006
ARCO DIVA UP 0093 – 2 231 [65:09]

This is very much a Czech production. Alfred Strejček’s expressive but gravely tones (what in the actor’s trade might be described as a ‘charcoal’ voice) set the tone from the outset, but with only the very lightest smattering of the language at my disposal I can understand how this might be a little unnerving to many listeners outside the Czech republic. On the babbling radio Czech can sound more like a strange kind of Italian, but with Strejček’s earnest projection the uninitiated might find themselves imagining the piece being narrated by a Klingon warrior. Alfred Strejček’s contribution should not however be underestimated. He has written the Oratio texts himself, basing them on the Gospel themes and those of the poet Jaroslav Durych. These are translated in the booklet into German, English and Spanish. Following them and absorbing the meaning and weight of the words is no more onerous than following the libretto of an opera, so I’ll hear no more moaning on the subject.  
This work is well represented in the catalogue with different quartet versions, and the Janáček Quartet has quite some competition in the Lindsdays for ASV, the Emerson Quartet for DG and the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Linn to name just a few. I do, however, find their performance satisfying on just about every level. The acoustic has an appropriate resonance without being too awash with churchy echo, intonation is good, expressive vibrato not overdone, the balance between the instruments being well rounded and a potent source of dynamic contrast.

The original version of this piece was for orchestra, but such performances are no guarantee of greater variety and interest. Referring briefly to the Hamburg Soloists with Emil Klein on Arte Nova I find this quartet recording far richer and more rewarding. The piece was written for performance in Holy Week in the Santa Cueva grotto in Cádiz, largely as a set of interludes to fill the gaps between the Bishop’s sermons based on the ‘Seven Words.’ With these performances one has that impression of a ritual, one being commentated on by both words and music. The Janáček Quartet approaches the work without sentimentality, and there’s no romantic ‘sexing-up’ of the music. Haydn himself confessed to the difficulty in sustaining the requested 10 minutes per Adagio, but to my mind this commission is the typical ignorance of someone requesting music with little or no experience of timing. I’m often asked to play intermezzos for church services, and almost invariably have to recommend that the ten or even five minute blocks of music asked for are reduced – two or three minutes usually being more than adequate unless there’s a long queue for communion, in which case you just keep going, like an ecclesiastical busker. Even in Haydn’s day a ten minute adagio would have seemed excessive, and it wasn’t as if the Bishop had much to do either; just kneeling in front of the altar waiting for the musicians to finish. It’s all quite theatrical in a ritualistic, minimalist kind of way. I find I’ve grown to love the piece where, as a young man, I had little patience for it.
The Janáček Quartet’s performance has all the sensitivity and sustained drama I can imagine wanting in this work. If you allow it enough space, the whole gorgeousness of the thing builds up inside you, which is the transcendental point after all. Subtle differences on comparison with other versions will always throw up debate, but where (for instance) the gorgeous singing melody in Sonata VI emerges I found myself wondering how I could possibly have rejected it all before. I suppose I must have grown up at some stage and not noticed.
Dominy Clements 



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