String Quartets Opp. 42 & 77; Seven Last Words
The London Haydn Quartet
Hyperion CDA68410 145:41 mins (2 discs)
Charles Burney wrote of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross that it was ‘perhaps the most sublime composition without words to point out its meaning that has ever been composed’. The prospect of this work sometimes daunts even string quartet devotees, given the extended, meditative nature of a group of pieces, slow and in similar form, in which contemplation and empathy count for everything. Taken together with their titles and consideration of the Biblical context, they are intensely moving, even for an atheist like me.
But then, the composer’s other quartets are sublime too, and this delectable collection offers three more of the best: the two Op. 77 quartets plus the D minor Op. 42, which contrasts excellently with the serenity and poise of the late works. There’s a wonderful immediacy about the London Haydn Quartet’s playing here, complemented by superb recorded sound. The ensemble’s period instruments, gut strings and considered stylistic approach offer plenty of colour and contrast: for instance, there’s a raw edge to the intensity of the D minor Quartet, and a twilit delicacy to the carefully voiced building of textures in the ever-developing Andante of the Op. 77 No. 2.
The heartfelt, inward-looking playing in the Seven Last Words is truly touching as well. A few rough edges to intonation are probably inevitable and worth putting up with. I have to say that their sound is at its finest when they apply a modicum of vibrato.