Haydn: Seven Last Words (CD review)

Attacca Quartet. Azica Records ACD-71299.

As you probably know, Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross at the request of a priest to mark Good Friday, and he published the work in 1787. The title refers to the seven brief phrases Jesus spoke on the cross, as the words appear in the four Gospels of the Bible. Along with an introduction and an "Earthquake" conclusion, the work contains nine movements (or ten on present recording, the final movement broken up into two tracks), each movement slow, thoughtful, and reflective.

But here's the thing: Haydn wrote the music initially as a meditation for orchestra, for listeners to hear as the Bishop descended from the pulpit to pray. It was only later that Haydn arranged the piece for string quartet (which we have here) and then as an oratorio for chorus and orchestra.

Now, here's another thing: I've never heard a recording of the Haydn piece I didn't like. I guess I just enjoy the music so much I have yet to find anyone who could seriously mess it up. Whatever, the Attacca Quartet decidedly don't mess it up.

The Attacca Quartet comprise Amy Schroeder, violin; Keiko Tokunaga, violin; Luke Fleming, viola; and Andrew Yee, cello. Among their many honors, they are First Prize winners of the 7th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in 2011 and top prizewinners and Listeners' Choice Award recipients in the 2011 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. For the 2014-15 season the Attacca ensemble are the Quartet-in-Residence for both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Virginia Arts Festival. The list of accomplishments for the last few years goes on and on. You get the idea: They're very good.

As I mentioned above, there are different arrangements of the work for differing performance groups. The Attacca's cellist, Andrew Yee, provides the following notes about their arrangement of the string quartet version: "In examining the arrangement for string quartet, one is struck that this version bears little of the careful crafting typical of the Father of the String Quartet. The string parts from the orchestral version remain mostly intact, and the crucial wind parts are left out almost entirely. The orchestral version also included a double bass part, which is necessary in my mind since much of the orchestral version has the violas and celli playing in unison with the bass providing the lower octave. When we were learning the piece, we were midway through our journey playing 68 Haydn quartets, so we had become accustomed to Haydn's exceedingly exacting skill in voice writing for the string quartet. It became clear, therefore, that the arrangement as it was presented to us was not going to work." About their changes, Yee goes on to say they included "adding double stops in individual parts, changing octaves to avoid unisons, and adding melodies and countermelodies to an otherwise silent player. Most changes were to individual parts, where the voicing was changed to give that instrument a more prominent role, thereby adding needed texture. In some cases, changes were made to add a melody that had inexplicably been omitted."

Whether you enjoy what the Attacca players do with Haydn may depend on whether you think it's sacrilege to tamper with a composer's score. That's up to you. For me, the Attacca group do no harm to Haydn's beautiful music, and the resulting performance is as lofty and moving as any I've heard. Personally, I think Haydn would approve, but what do I know?

The Attacca's arrangement adheres to the following plan:

L'introduzione
Chorale - Sonata I "Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt" ("Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do")
Chorale - Sonata II "Hodie mecum eris in paradiso" ("Today you will be in paradise")
Chorale - Sonata III "Mulier, ecce filius tuus" ("Woman, behold your son")
Chorale - Sonata IV "Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?")
L'introduzione II (trans. Yee)
Sonata V "Sitio" ("I thirst")
Chorale - Sonata VI "Consummatum est" ("It is finished")
Chorale - Sonata VII "In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum" ("Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit")
Il Terremoto ("The earthquake")

Attacca Quartet
If you are familiar with Haydn's score, you will notice that the Attaccas include a second L'introduzione into the arrangement, one that exists only in Haydn's oratorio version, here transcribed by cellist Yee; and they include the oratorio's chorales that precede each sonata. Again, they do no harm to the original version and encourage an even more spiritual mood, without upsetting the intimacy of the quartet arrangement.

Needless to say, the Attacca Quartet play all of this wonderfully well, clearly and self-assuredly expressed. What they offer that is most appealing is their sense of rhythm and diversity. While they indulge in the usual rubato, it is not excessive and adds to the variety of the music. Not that one should take Haydn's work lightly, yet with the Attacca players there is a genuine feeling of fun and excitement in the notes. They eschew a certain amount of solemnity for a more spirited, though always dignified and appropriately respectful, interpretation. The result is thoughtful and meditative, while sounding impassioned, sincere, and unaffected, too.

In short, the Attacca reading is rich, dynamic, emotional, uplifting, and inspiring. When you add the excellence of Azica's sound into the mix, their performance surely stands among the best available.

Producer Alan Bise and recording engineer Bruce Egre made the album for Azica Records, releasing it in 2015. Although the miking is just a tad close, there is still a sensible stereo spread and a modest degree of room resonance to provide a realistic presentation. Detailing and transparency are likewise excellent, with a fine sense of air and separation among the instruments. There is also a slightly soft, warm quality about the sound that is most listenable; you get no hard, bright, or edgy string tone here. Played at a reasonable level, what you do get is a most-lifelike account of a string quartet in a natural environment.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa