Monday, April 10, 2017

UCLA Camarades play Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” at Rolling Hills


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

UCLA Camarades is the title given to the chamber music program at UCLA. From it, ensembles of various sizes and combinations are drawn, and for this Palm Sunday performance of the string quartet arrangement of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross Op.51 Hob XX/1B (Hob III/50-56), Professor of Violin Movses Pogossian and Professor of Cello Antonio Lysy were joined by undergraduates Joyce Kwak (violin) and Julien Altmann (viola).

This was the first time I’d heard a live performance of the quartet version of the Seven Last Words. Haydn originally composed the work in 1786 in response to a commission from the Oratory of Santa Cueva in Cádiz (left) for music to form part of a Lenten service. During the service the bishop was to intone the seven last words (or sentences) claimed in the Gospels as having been uttered by Christ during the crucifixion, with each “word” followed by music. Haydn composed seven slow “Sonatas” for orchestra, with an introductory movement, Maestoso ed Adagio, preceding the first “word”, and the last segueing attacca into a depiction, Presto e con tutta la forza, of the earthquake said in Matthew 27:51 to have immediately followed Jesus’ death.

Haydn’s orchestral original doesn’t seem to be performed often these days, as neither does the piano solo version prepared by the publisher (with Haydn’s approval) in 1787. Most frequently given are this string quartet version, also from 1787 and said to be the work of Haydn himself, and a choral/orchestral arrangement that he made in 1796. In this performance (which marked the 230th anniversary of the premiere in Cádiz) each “word” was spoken by Annette Jaquette before the movement concerned, and there was a fine contrast between her subdued delivery and the vivid musical depictions that followed. The UCLA quartet, led with passionate intensity by Prof Pogossian, devotedly followed the twists and turns, the highs and lows, and the alternations of lamenting and consolation that mark the long progress of Haydn’s remarkable score. (This performance ran three minutes shy of a full hour; had the first-half repeats that are marked in Sonatas II-VII been observed, it would have extended to around 80 minutes.) 

However I confess, both as a lover of Haydn’s music generally and as an unbeliever for whom its religious context has no personal significance, to some misgivings about the work itself (and I realize that this casts me into the outer darkness both on faith and musical grounds!). Haydn himself noted that “it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners”, and despite his use of an innovatory key scheme from movement to movement to help mitigate this, for me at least by the time the earthquake arrived a degree of monotony had set in. 

I have seen comments to the effect that the string quartet version is a little perfunctory, omitting some melodic elements from the orchestral original, and possibly not fully authentic Haydn. I have never heard the latter, but from concert performances many years ago of the final choral/orchestral version I do not recall any sense of ennui. Apparently Haydn in 1796 also reworked the orchestration as well as adding vocal parts (in a first collaboration with Baron van Swieten, his future librettist for The Creation and The Seasons – Haydn also added a marvelous additional Introduzione for winds only between Sonatas IV and V), and it may be that this, virtually an oratorio, is the most thoroughly satisfying way to experience the Seven Last Words. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear the string quartet version on the present occasion, and cannot imagine it more persuasively and eloquently done.


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, April 9, 2017.
Photo: Oratorio de la Santa Cueva en Cádiz, España: llamo Caleteron.

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