Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross
(1840 version for flute and string quartet, by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri)
Rafael Ruibérriz de Torres (flute)
La Spagna
rec. 2019, Madrid, Spain
Brilliant Classics 96659 [76]

There are many versions of Haydn’s Seven Last Words (see Ralph Moore’s survey). He originally wrote it for orchestra, but soon after he wrote a string quartet arrangement, which is the most commonly played, as well as an oratorio version a decade later. There was also a piano arrangement, approved by Haydn but not written by him. Then there were many other unofficial versions, of which this is one. It was written a few decades after Haydn’s death by the relatively obscure Spanish composer Francisco Asenjo Barbieri. It is a novel arrangement, consisting of the string quartet version – as far as I can tell unaltered – plus a newly-written flute part. Barbieri was a seventeen-year-old student at the time, and his arrangement is a sincere and rather charming homage to a composer he revered.

Seven Last Words has, in fact, nine movements: an introduction, seven sonatas, and a final short movement that depicts the earthquake that immediately followed Christ’s death. Except for this final movement, marked presto, it is slow music, ranging from grave to adagio. Haydn found writing the seven sonatas, each roughly ten minutes long, an understandable challenge. Shostakovich famously wanted the opening movement of his last string quartet to play “so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom.” It is a testament to Haydn’s genius that the Seven Last Words does not provoke such a response.

The work was originally commissioned as a musical accompaniment for the annual Devotion of the Three Hours at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva in Cádiz. In the booklet notes, we are told that it was an immensely popular work in Spain, and that its performance became a traditional part of Holy Week in this and surrounding churches. It is easy to hear why: alongside the Stabat Mater, I would argue it is Haydn’s best religious work – though for every work Haydn was motivated by his devout Christian faith; he ended his scores with ‘Laus Deo’. In spite of the necessarily slow and meditative character of the music, there is so much variety in terms of the textures, keys and melodies – it is perhaps an instance of great limitations inspiring even greater genius.

For me, the string quartet has always been, by some margin, the best version, so I looked forward to hearing it anew, thanks to Barbieri’s added flute part. By and large his contribution is tasteful and enjoyable. With doubling, pedal notes, and call-and-response passages, it often sounds quite conversational – a dialogue between a talented student and a master – and I found it mostly delightful. However, sometimes he gives us too much. There are some dissonances that, rather than adding tension, just sound inelegant, and at various points – especially in the Introduction – he intrudes upon the silence in a way that spoils the special character of the work. One feature of the Seven Last Words is the pauses: they have a strong musical and contemplative effect on the listener. Understandably – but unfortunately – Barbieri uses these moments to add a flute melody, and it is distracting and excessive. Elsewhere he is more successful: in the opening of the third sonata, the flute line does add a beautifully lyrical character to otherwise slender music.

It is a good performance – perhaps slower, more somber and restrained than some others, but not disagreeably so. The players use historical instruments, and they come across well in the recording. Those with a special interest in Haydn’s Seven Last Words should listen to this album; it is both a historical curiosity and an endearing homage – but everyone else should seek out Haydn’s original first, in either the orchestral or string quartet version.

Steven Watson

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