HAYDN The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross
A grotto draped in black, a single lantern, a bishop prostrate before the altar: Haydn himself described the circumstances of the first performance of his Seven Last Words, and they’re a useful prop for any Haydn lover who can’t quite reconcile the gap between Haydn’s utilitarian string quartet arrangement of the piece and his usual mastery of the quartet medium. They’re a reminder that the Seven Last Words, in whatever form they’re performed, are nothing if not a piece of sacred theatre.
The Callino Quartet seem to get that, at least some of the time – and those moments are the most satisfying of this generally sensitive and thoughtful performance on The Sixteen’s Coro label (the quartet’s violinist Sarah Sexton is leader of The Sixteen’s orchestra). They play on modern instruments with what they describe as a historically informed approach; very sparing with vibrato. And they’ve chosen, by and large, not to emulate orchestral or choral sonorities. The impression one takes away is of a rather chaste performance which from time to time breaks into something more passionate, more involving – and more dramatic.
But those breakthroughs are worth waiting for: the sepulchral opening phrases of ‘Consummatum est’, the harsh, piercing violin sonorities after the anything-but-parched pizzicato opening of ‘Sitio’; the way they raise the tempo and the temperature from 4'40" onwards in ‘Pater, dimitte illis’ and – above all – their beautifully gauged silences throughout the cycle. The Callinos have an eloquent way of ending phrases too: listen to the way the final bars of ‘Deus meus’ fall haltingly into place. Insights like these are persuasive; and, if the quartet version of the Seven Last Words convinces you, this recording certainly offers a perspective worth hearing.