Classical CD Reviews

HAYDN: The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Op. 51 – Michel Serres, narrator/ Quatuor Ysaye -Ysaye Record

An ambitious, grandly mounted production both visually and aurally

Published on January 15, 2007

HAYDN: The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Op. 51 – Michel Serres, narrator/ Quatuor Ysaye -Ysaye Record
HAYDN: The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Op. 51 – Michel Serres, narrator/ Quatuor Ysaye -Ysaye Records YRO7, 72:03 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:

An ambitious, grandly mounted production both visually and aurally, the Ysaye Quartet version of Haydn’s meditative Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erloesers am Kreuze (1785), delivers a thoughtful, eminently pious reading of a seminal entry in the Haydn oeuvre. The original commission for the piece came from the Church of Santa Cuerva in Cadiz, Spain. Haydn was to conceive seven slow movements to accompany the meditation of the Bishop of Cadiz before the altar as he read and glossed from the pulpit each of the seven final utterances of Christ on the Cross.

In order to avoid the inevitable monotony of seven consecutive slow movements, Haydn invented any number of variations within the frame of his sonatas, altering keys, phrasings meters, textures, modes of discourse–mutes, arco, and pizzicato passages– and the application of repeats. Haydn added an introductory adagio as well as a very dramatic finale, a Terremoto section which programmatically invoked the earthquake following the death of Christ, perhaps a direct allusion to the 1755 earthquake which had struck the city of Lisbon.

The Ysaye Quartet, with narrator Michel Serres, projects an austere and often agonized beauty in the course of the spiritual progression of the music, the last movement so chromatic and startling that its minor harmonies had me thinking of the musical drama in the incidental pieces for Schubert’s Rosamunde and of Haydn’s own Mass in Time of War. The breadth of the recording, its leisurely and somber pace, allows us to savor the many splendid harmonic shifts, as in the transparent fifths achieved in the two violins in the E-flat Largo of Into Thy Hands, O Lord, I Commend My Spirit. The extensive booklet contains lovely photos by Gerard Rondeau, and the jewel-box alternative packaging is also lovely.

– Gary Lemco




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