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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Les sept dernières paroles de notre Rédempteur sur la Croix - Die Sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (“The Seven Last Words”) (String Quartet version op. 51 Nr. 1-7 Hob XX/1B) (1786) [65.44]
Klenke Quartett
rec. live, 19 May 2006, Church of St. Peter & Paul, Weimar. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Charles Gounod (1818-1893), César Franck (1822-1890), Théodore Dubois (1837-1924), Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), Ruth Zechlin (1926-2007), Sofia Gubaidulina (*1931), and James Macmillan (b.1959) all composed works based on The Seven Last Words of Christ. The most famous version is clearly that by Haydn.

Or perhaps versions would be more appropriate, since Haydn wrote “Les sept dernières paroles de notre Rédempteur sur la Croix” for orchestra first (1786/97), then later appended to it a choral part (after 1791). Presumably – though not certainly – from Haydn’s pen comes the transcription for string quartet, which has entered the Haydn String Quartet canon without controversy. There is also a version for keyboard which isn’t Haydn’s own, but was proof-read and approved by him. 

The “Seven Last Words”, taken from the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John and put into presumed chronological order, form a sort of shorthand interpretation of the crucifixion for Catholics. They are: 

  • Pater, dimitte illis; quia nesciunt, quid faciunt – “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)
  • Hodie mecum eris in paradise – “Verily, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43)
  • Mulier, ecce filius tuus – “Woman, behold your son. (Behold your mother)” (John 19:26-27)
  • Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me? – “Eli Eli lama sabachthani[My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?] (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46)
  • Sitio – “I thirst” (John 19:28)
  • Consumatum est! – “It has been done!” [It has been completed] (John 19:30)
  • In manus tuas, Domine, commendo Spiritum meum – “Into Thy hands I command my spirit” (Luke 23:46) 

Haydn’s challenge was to compose seven meditative instrumental movements for the bishop of Cádiz, each to follow one of his contemplations on one of these words on Good Friday. Seven Adagios of just under 10 minutes each in a row – eight, if you count the Maestoso ed Adagio introduction – could make for some very turgid listening. Haydn was well aware of that and he was a master of the slow movement. The result was one of Haydn’s proudest achievements and the enduring popularity especially of the ‘naked’ string quartet version proves him right. He created a work that defies convention and strikes one as modern yet old-fashioned at once. Or neither – and instead as timeless. 

No wonder a fair number of string quartets flock to this work. The Griller, Talich, Fitzwilliam, Lindsay and Guarneri string quartets have recorded it over their careers. In 2001 the Emerson Quartet threw its hat in the ring with a slightly ‘enhanced’ version - the only Haydn recording of them that I like – perhaps because humor isn’t terribly important in this work. The Ysaÿe Quartet put out a wonderful, slightly romantic, version interpolated spoken meditations (in French), and my favorite quartet in Haydn, the Quatuor Mosaïque, has recorded them, too. Most recently, the Klenke Quartet(t) added their version, a live recording, for Berlin Classics. 

I first noted the all-female Klenke Quartet when I came across their terrific Mozart cycle of the “Haydn-Quartets” on Profil; next to the Quatuor Mosaïque’s cycle now my favorite recordings thereof. It shouldn’t surprise that their latest offering convinces wholly as well, even as it will not be everyone’s preferred version. Direct comparison to a favorite version of mine – the Rosamunde Quartet’s on ECM – is telling. 

Where the Klenke’s tone is flexible, offering a good amount of vibrato, the Rosamunde Quartet is more matter-of-fact, with a straightforward and unsentimental reading. The latter’s is a true lament, the Klenke’s subversively romantic. With a rounder, more luxurious sound and a touch more reverb, the live Klenke recording offers a gentler view and a bit more humanity. 

Annegret Klenke’s first violin sounds more nasal than Andreas Reiner’s, and she floats above her colleagues; whereas the Rosamunde remains a tight cohesive whole, even where the melodic material is unevenly distributed. And - perhaps a matter of live recording vs. studio recording, perhaps a matter of style - the Rosamunde Quartet’s intonation is dead-on whereas the Klenke Quartet bends the sound here and there, sometimes dropping slightly flat in a flexible, bungee-like way. Interestingly, many of the qualities that made their Mozart so irresistible are better represented by the Rosamunde Quartet in this work. 

The Klenke Quartet might not ‘indulge’ per se, but its slow tempos remind me a little of the Emerson without achieving their rhythmic rigor but offering a broader flow. This is particularly notable with “Sitio”, the fifth sonata, where the Klenke Quartet takes 11:31 to the Rosamunde’s 7:57. The concluding movement depicting the earthquake – “Il terremoto” – starts out nice and dark but then fails to be, well, earth-shattering. Alas, that is a problem shared with most, if not all, versions for string quartet. It’s recommended for their flexible tone, and to those who like breath in already broad movements. Those who prefer something that lets the music speak more plainly – less an interpretation rather than musical excavation – will find more satisfaction from the way of playing epitomized by the Rosamunde Quartet. 

Jens F. Laurson 



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