Haydn: Seven Last Words

COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Ysaÿe Records
ALBUM TITLE: Haydn
WORKS: Seven Last Words
PERFORMER: Michel Serres (speaker); Quatuor Ysaÿe
CATALOGUE NO: YR 07
Haydn’s Seven Last Words is unique: seven substantial slow movements, based on the final utterances of Christ on the cross, with a slow introduction and a final Presto representing the earthquake that follows his death in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s very hard to bring off such a huge chain of slow studies in concert – though listeners attuned to Arvo Pärt’s longer liturgical works or, indeed, to Shostakovich’s 15th Quartet might not find it such a problem. Even the Lindsay Quartet’s intensely absorbed ASV version is difficult to take in one sitting. But the Quatuor Ysaÿe have attempted another kind of solution, setting the movements in something like a liturgical context by punctuating them with meditations – poised on the cusp of Christianity and Humanism – by the French author Michel Serres.

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Some of Serres’s thoughts are penetrating; but it’s a tribute to the Ysaÿe’s playing that I think their performances would probably work as a straight sequence (the tracking makes that entirely practicable if your machine lets you preprogramme). Generally speaking there’s a degree or two more urgency about the Ysaÿe’s performances – less determination to bleed every telling phrase of meaning than with the Lindsays – but I don’t feel they miss anything: the range and subtlety of expression is as formidable as the control of each movement’s dramatic shape. The leaving out of repeats is also entirely justified here. The recording doesn’t warm or etherealise the quartet’s sound, giving the final Presto in particular a sinewy, gritty edginess entirely appropriate to the subject matter. Recommended.Stephen Johnson