Review

 

Michael Dervan reviews Haydn - Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by the Vanbrugh String Quartet during European Quartet Week, Cork

Haydn is not unique among composers for having tackled The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, as a musical subject.

Heinrich Schütz did so as early as the 1640s, and there have been later works by Théodore Dubois and César Franck in the 19th century, and Charles Tournemire and Alan Ridout (both for organ), Sofia Gubaidulina (for accordion, cello and strings), and Ian Wilson (for piano trio), closer to our own time.

Haydn's commission came from "a canon of Cádiz" in the 1780s, and the general shape of the work - seven slow movements, each about 10 minutes long - was set by the particular needs of a Holy Week service rather than by the composer. Although what Haydn originally wrote was a work for orchestra, the original has been eclipsed in popularity - as has his later reworking as a full-scale oratorio - by his own transcription for string quartet. The version for quartet is one of those instances where less is more.

The innate intimacy of the medium as well as the restriction and homogeneity of its colouring add to rather than detract from the concentrated spareness of Haydn's writing.

The atmosphere of the first performance in Cádiz, for which, Haydn reported, "the walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth," was not recalled in Friday's European Quartet Week performance at St Mary's Dominican Church in Cork, although the readings and Catholic meditations were - given on this occasion by the prior, Fr Stephen Hutchinson, with Timothy McCarthy and Ann Quaine.

The music poses unusual problems in performance because it withdraws so many of the elements of contrast that players normally rely on.

The RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet did at times stray off the straight and narrow path, striding through the sixth movement, "It is finished", in a way that at times seemed almost jaunty, and bringing touches of giddiness to the semiquaver triplets of the seventh, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit".

On the other hand, the fifth movement, "I thirst," with its expressively treacherous pizzicato under keening melodic falls, was touchingly done, and the "Earthquake" came across as an unleashing of genuinely pent-up energy.

The remaining 20 concerts of European Quartet Week run at various venues in Cork until Saturday; further information from 1850 788789,