Haydn: The Seven Last Words

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WORKS: The Seven Last Words
PERFORMER: Rosamunde Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 461 780-2
It’s curious how Haydn’s makeshift string quartet version of The Seven Last Words continues to eclipse the orchestral original in popularity. Whatever the gains in intimacy, the quartet arrangement inevitably diminishes the music’s colour, awe and – especially in the case of the final ‘Earthquake’ – sheer physical power. The textures, too, with long stretches of theme-plus-chordal-accompaniment, are often uncharacteristic of Haydn’s mature quartet style. Still, if I would always opt to hear the orchestral version, both these new discs offer dedicated, thoughtful performances. Playing on period instruments, with an appropriate touch of asperity, the recently reincarnated Fitzwilliam Quartet gives a more dramatic and more human reading. Their introduction, for instance, has a raw, urgent intensity, making the brief moments of consolatory tenderness all the more poignant. The Rosamunde, on modern instruments, likewise opts for an austere sound palette, with minimal vibrato. But with its more spacious tempo and loftier, more contained manner it emphasises the music’s monumentality rather than its anguish and pity. This broad contrast continues through the sequence of ‘Words’, the Fitzwilliam almost invariably swifter and phrasing with more freedom and more piercing expressiveness, the Rosamunde a tad more refined, calmer and smoother in contour, at times (as in Nos 2 and 5) dangerously statuesque. If you see The Seven Last Words primarily as a series of grave philosophical meditations, then the Rosamunde may well be the answer. Ultimately, though, the Fitzwilliam’s more personal, sharply etched performance (some wonderfully creative phrasing from leader Lucy Russell) drew me more deeply into this sublime music. Even finer, for my money, are the performances by the Mosaïques (Astrée Auvidis) and the Lindsays (ASV), both of whom combine the gravity and breadth of the Rosamunde with an even wider range of colour and expression than the Fitzwilliam. Richard Wigmore