Rosamunde Quartet
Joseph Haydn The Seven Words
ECM New Series (www.ecmrecords.com)

cd cover The Seven [Last] Words is considered one of Haydn's most significant achievements, originally scored as a string quartet but later also as an oratorio. Commissioned by a Cadiz cathedral, the first performance came in a ritual setting on Good Friday in the same year of its writing, 1787. Given that the music had been conceived for a liturgical event, and, the most solemn and anguished of the catholic year at that, Haydn seemed to deliberately limit what he might "say" through these seven adagios. That is, he dared to say less and thereby resisted charming Spanish clergy with more. Steadfast and compact for the time, The Seven Words makes earlier baroque work seem indulgent by comparison. Yet, it reciprocally seems quaintly expressive compared to what a similar contemporary composing effort might yield today. Indeed, the music here sounds neither grandiose nor extreme despite the level of suffering associated with its basis, the climax of Christ's crucifixion. It plays like something respectable and unoffensive, a calmly pained meditation on a moment of historical agony few persons, including those of the 18th Century, could scarcely imagine then or today. To their credit, the Rosamunde Quartet do a revelatory job conveying Haydn's succinct writing with a performance that never seems measured, plies little ornamentation on the score - an astounding feat in itself, and requires a very patient 66 minutes. There is a great sense of organic space in the absence of vibrato, providing the listener with an open endlessly interesting surface. In the end, this Seven Words is a mixed blessing though one handsome and unabating feast of a post-baroque recital, Haydn's classical material strikes one, by 21st century standards, as somehow distanced from the gravity of its inspiration. - Steve Taylor

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