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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seven Last Words From the Cross, Hob.III:50-56, Op.51, No.1-7 (1787)
Cherubini Quartet (Christoph Poppen, Harald Schoneweg (violins); Harold Schlichtig (viola); Klaus Kämper (cello))
rec. 18-20 July 1988, Haydn-Saal, Schloss Eisenstadt
EMI CLASSICS CDC 7 49682 [77:02] 


I remember that when I first read Reginald Barrett-Ayres’s book Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet (1974) I was somewhat shocked to find that The Seven Last Words from the Cross was discussed - fairly briefly - in a chapter titled ‘Odds and ends’. Admittedly the work does, in several senses, lie outside the mainstream of Haydn’s quartets and is ‘only’ an arrangement of a work originally written for larger forces. Yet it is one of the most extraordinarily powerful uses of the medium ever made, a remarkable masterpiece. To be fair to Barrett-Ayres he does describe it as “this astonishing work”. And so it is! 

The work – the original version was for two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings – was written to a commission from Spain. In Cadiz, a priest by the name of José Saluz de Santamaria had the idea of asking Haydn to write music to be used as part of ceremonies in the underground grotto-church of Santa Cueva. It is important to stress that Haydn’s music was conceived as part of a ritual, a quasi-theatrical performance.

When Haydn prepared a score of his adaptation of the work as an oratorio, he dictated a foreword to the publication which explained the particular context for which the work was written (though, as we have seen, it wasn’t for the Cathedral that the music was written):

“It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit, and prostrated himself before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners.”

Haydn’s composition is made up of these seven adagios, each related to one of the Seven Last Words, the whole prefaced by an Introduzione and concluded by Il Terremoto (The Earthquake) – a piece for which the adjective ‘astonishing’ might have been created. In listening to the work it is important to remember that we are, as it were, witnessing only a part of the ‘performance’ – we don’t hear the discourses of the bishop, we aren’t sitting in the dark religious atmosphere of the grotto Santa Cueva, we don’t see the movements of the bishop and the other ministers. Stripped of all of its three-dimensional and verbal context, it can be a challenge for a quartet to hold the hearer’s attention right through this substantial, predominantly slow, piece. 

The Cherubini Quartet is certainly not daunted by the challenge. So far are they from being alarmed at the prospect of a series of slow movements that they actually play at slower than usual tempos throughout.  However, the intensity of their playing ensures that attention never wanders, and there is an all-pervading solemnity and beauty to their reading of the work that makes it both moving and awe-inspiring. For all the gravity, even monumentality, of their interpretation, the essential intimacy of the medium is never lost; perhaps a really well played performance (such as this) of the quartet version is capable of a sense of personal commitment barely possible in performances of the orchestral or oratorio versions of the work (even if the versions for larger forces have the advantage when it comes to variety of colour). The Cherubini Quartet is recorded pretty closely and with a pretty fierce top end – which adds to the fierceness of the drama in the final “Earthquake” movement. 

This reissue is very warmly recommended. If you insist on a performance on period instruments you may prefer that by the Fitzwilliam Quartet (Linn CKD 153) and, of course, there are plenty of other good performances on modern instruments, such as that by the Carmina Quartet (Claves 50-2002), where the movements are interspersed by Gregorian responses for Holy Week, that by the Rosamunde Quartet (ECM 461-780-2) and that by the Lindsay Quartet (ASV CDDCA853). But this version by the Cherubuni Quartet can hold its own with most – and, in any case, this isn’t a work of which any one performance can be absolute or definitive. A welcome re-issue. 

Glyn Pursglove

 

 


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