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Haydn’s Good Friday masterpiece sounds heavenly in hands of SPCO string quartet

March 31, 2018

Of the many hundreds of works composed by Haydn over the course of a long, creative life, “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” may well be his most unusual.

Written to be performed in an underground cave church in Cadíz, Spain, the work consists of seven sonata movements, all of them slow in tempo, framed by an introduction and an epilogue. At its 1786 premiere, a priest spoke Christ’s words before musicians played each of the movements. Then he delivered a sermon about the story’s content.

Perhaps mercifully, there was no attempt to recreate the seven sermons at the Ordway Concert Hall on Good Friday morning, when a string quartet featuring St. Paul Chamber Orchestra players performed the “Seven Last Words” during a 70-minute concert.

Musically, considerable effort was made to recreate the sound Haydn himself might have heard. Gut strings were used for the four instruments, rather than today’s standard metal strings. Bows of the classical period were also used. And the quartet tuned to a lower pitch than usual.

The upshot was a sound that was mellower and more intimate than the modern string quartet. Textures were lighter and more transparent, with a plain-spokenness that was often disarming — and at times uniquely moving.

The performance’s authenticity of style owed much to the input of SPCO artistic partner Jonathan Cohen, who anchored the quartet on cello. Cohen is an expert in baroque and early classical music interpretation. His influence was clearly felt in the unadorned, vibrato-free manner of playing, also in the overall sense of cohesion he brought to each movement.

Save for the epilogue — which vividly mimics the earthquake following Christ’s crucifixion — Haydn’s music is quiet and contemplative in nature. No wailing or gnashing of teeth accompanied Sonata No. 5, where Christ’s words “I thirst” are the epigraph. Instead, the interplay of graceful pizzicati created a space for empathy and meditation.

The quartet’s playing reached a pinnacle of expressivity in Sonata No. 7: “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” Muted for the first time in the work, the violins of Francisco Fullana and Kyu-Young Kim mingled sweetness and poignancy, beckoning visions of another dimension beyond human suffering.

The ethereality and fragility of the moment was especially palpable on gut strings — “more human and fallible,” according to cellist Jonathan Cohen — with breath-catchingly effective quiet playing.

For all of their expressive benefits, gut strings go out of tune much more easily, resulting in the occasional sour pitch. The players retuned more than usual between movements, temporarily breaking the music’s spell.

But these were small prices to pay in what was generally an acutely sensitive performance. The generous, tender spirituality of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” seeped through, making Good Friday something truly special.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.