Saturday 2 February 2019

Strong, muscular yet tender and very direct: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ alongside Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary

Casals Quartet at Milton Court 2019 (Photo  Mark Allan / Barbican)
Casals Quartet at Milton Court 2019 (Photo  Mark Allan / Barbican)
Haydn The Seven Last Words of Christ, Colm Tóibín The Testament of Mary
Casals Quartet, Fiona Shaw; Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 February 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)

The powerful combination of Haydn's Seven Last Words with Toibin's Testament of Mary, strong, muscular yet tender

Fiona Shaw at Milton Court 2019 (Photo  Mark Allan / Barbican)
Fiona Shaw at Milton Court 2019
(Photo  Mark Allan / Barbican)
Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ is something of a challenge in the concert hall. Written for liturgical performance on Good Friday, it consists of seven slow movements with an introduction and finale, which are designed to be punctuated by, and to comment upon, discourses on each of the seven last words. Translating this into a concert experience is tricky, how to preserve the atmosphere in a non-religious setting, yet the music needs the verbal punctuation.

For the performance of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ at Milton Court Concert Hall on Friday 1 February 2019 by the Casals Quartet (Cuarteto Casals) - Abel Tomas, Vera Martinez Mehner, Jonathan Brown, Arnau Tomas - as part of the Barbican Presents season, the movements were interspersed by dramatic readings from Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary with Fiona Shaw.
Toibin's The Testament of Mary, a short novel which became a play and was played on Broadway by Fiona Shaw, presents an alternative view of Christ's mother, her own personal testimony which resolutely eschews the divine, in contrast to the powerful sense of myth which is projected by her protectors who will create the gospels. It is very direct, very down to earth, giving us a very different examination of the sacred which contrasts and complements Haydn's work. Shaw wonderfully identified with the protagonist, and her dramatised readings made a powerful yet balanced contrast to the Haydn.

Haydn wrote The Seven Last Words of Christ originally for orchestra, to a commission from Cadiz where it was premiered in the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva on Good Friday in 1787 (when it was also performed in the Schlosskirche, Vienna). He then produced the string quartet version, but he also produced a version for chorus and orchestra in 1796 (in fact, in response to the fact that someone else had already done this). But it is in its string quartet guise that the work has become best known, sacrificing the sophisticated colours of the orchestra version, for the more intimate, concentrated drama of the string quartet.

The Casals Quartet was formed over 20 years ago at the Escuela Reina Sofia in Madrid, and it was clear that this long familiarity and shared history has created a strong and powerfully focused group personality. They play with great focus, not too much vibrato and strong tone, so that their account of the Haydn was strong and muscular, yet tender too. The sense of dynamic and tonal contrast was striking throughout the work, highlighting the sophistication of Haydn's response to the religious narrative. The Seven Last Words of Christ is very much an Enlightenment work, it can sometimes seem a little polite when compared to later, Romantic responses to the Crucifixion, yet here we had something intense, concentrated and highly dramatic.

The Introduzione presented all these virtues, along with a real sense of narrative drama. This might be abstract music, yet it was clear that for the members of the quartet there was a real story underlying it (and it is worth bearing in mind that Haydn's themes in each of the main movements are related to the rhythms of the spoken text of the particular Latin 'word', in fact phrase, the movement represents).

The first movement was beautifully pleading, with highly articulated contrasts between strength, elegance and touching moments. The second movement had beautifully long, elegant lines from the violin, yet jarring contrasts with the sharp ensemble chords. The graceful and tender third movement still had strong moments, whilst the fourth was profoundly thoughtful.

The moving violin solo in the fifth movement contrasted with the pizzicato accompaniment, and again with the hard-edged tone the quartet brought to the second subject, the contrasts between the tender and the hard-edged in the development highlighted the innate drama which the quartet brought to the music. In the sixth movement, Haydn takes the striking unison motto at the beginning and subjects it to contrapuntal treatment, tender at first but then developing a Beethovenian strength. The final movement, the seventh word, was powerfully felt yet an elegant summation, followed immediately by the Terremoto (Earthquake) where the quartet's powerful tutta forza brought out the Beethovenian drama of the music.

Fiona Shaw's final contribution came between the sixth and seventh movements when Mary confronts her protectors and presents her direct, unmythic and straightforward view of events in contrast to their mythologising. Her final words were 'I will say that is was not worth it', a powerful, alternative vision of the Crucifixion which helped put the Haydn in context.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Semele and beyond: Harry Bickett talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour  - my interview
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
  • 1769: a year in music from Ian Page & The Mozartists  (★★★★) - Concert review 
  • Requiem Masses for murdered royalty: HerveNiquet & Le Concert Spirituel in Requiems for King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette by Cherubini & by Plantade (★★★) - concert review
  • In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live  - CD review
  • Faure's Requiem from the Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan School (★★★) - CD review
  • Something of a discoveryReverie, Icelandic art songs (★★★★) - CD review
  • Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry (★★★★) - CD review
  • Everybody can! Nadine Benjamin's debut in Tosca (★★★★) - opera review
  • The main thing is to sing well and be a good performer: I chat to soprano Chiara Skerath, associate artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera - interview  
  • Perhaps a film manqué: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden (★★½) - opera review 
  • Lux: A trio of striking works to celebrate the Norwegian girls' choir's 25th anniversary (★★★★) - CD review
  • Early and late: Schumann from Robin Tritschler & Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Stories in music: Roses, Lilies & Other Flowers from The Telling (★★★★) CD review
  • Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio performed in the Kölner Philharmonie (★★★★★) concert review
  • Home

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