Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ (for string quartet & voice)
In 1785, the authorities of Cadiz Cathedral commissioned Haydn to write a succession of seven orchestral adagios, plus a prelude and postlude, to illustrate the last words of Christ. Supremely inventive though he was, Haydn confessed that even he felt challenged to create sufficient variety within these strict requirements. Yet his efforts subsequently pleased him enough to publish a string quartet version for wider dissemination. It would be idle to pretend that the result matches the colour and resonance of the orchestral original, or the hieratic grandeur of the choral and orchestral version he made still later. Yet it is periodically performed, often with poetry or biblical readings between the movements to mitigate the hour-plus of slow-moving string quartet texture.
Now the Spanish composer José Peris Lacasa (b. 1924) has gone further, homing in on phrases in the Haydn that more or less correspond in rhythm and shape to the Latin texts and recasting these for voice. Though this doubtless heightens the liturgical sense of the music, it is artistically unsuccessful. Some of the words fit only awkwardly with the notes, and there remains something arbitrary in the sporadic way the vocal part comes and goes, even though Susanne Kelling sings it touchingly. A pity, for the playing of Henschel Quartet – fierce and wiry in the more rhetorical passages; gently expressive in the more reflective moments – sounds quite fine enough to have stood on its own. Maybe Peris Lacasa should have restricted himself to vocal monodies on Haydn’s themes between the movements.