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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa