Haydn: The Seven last Words of Christ

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ
WORKS: The Seven Last Words of Christ
PERFORMER: Cuarteto Casals
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902162

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Since its formation in 1997, the Barcelona-based Cuarteto Casals has received golden reviews for purity and unanimity of intonation and ensemble, and the concentration and insight of its players’ interpretations. Yet, in their latest release, they have surpassed themselves – and in a less than obvious context. Haydn’s Seven Last Words was not originally composed for string quartet at all. The Spanish commission was for seven orchestral adagios illustrating Christ’s final sayings from the Cross; confessing that even he found the task a challenge, Haydn managed to generate at least some contrast by careful variation of tempo, character and orchestration, and added a slow introduction and a final brief burst of fast ‘earthquake’ music. But in making a string quartet version, he was, of course, deprived of orchestral colour. One has heard less than inspired trudges through this full hour of slow quartet music that were, frankly, a penance.

Never for a second is that true here. Using Classical bows, the variety of nuance and colour these players derive from gradations of vibrato and bow pressure alone constitutes a masterclass in quartet playing. Yet it is the sheer intensity and range of expression that transfixes the ear, from the rapt repose of the third movement (‘Woman, behold they son’), by way of the fainting phrases and lacerating outburst of the fifth (‘I thirst’) to tender farewells of the seventh (Into thy hands’) before the earthquake tears in with shocking finality – all fully matched by the recording’s resonant presence. Truly a revelation.

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Bayan Northcott