The conjunction of Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ" and an ensemble such as the Guarneri String Quartet is a rare event. Though popular throughout its first century, the work reached its bicentennial last year more honored in textbooks than concert halls.
The Guarneri offered the "Seven Last Words"--Haydn adapted it himself from the original for full orchestra--Sunday afternoon in a Coleman Chamber Concert at Beckman Auditorium, Caltech. The results were imposing, moving and a little disappointing.
Given the implicit texts and setting, this is a remarkably calm, measured work. Even "I thirst" sounds serene on the surface. Haydn projects assurance and the saving love of God, not the dying agony of a man. Significantly, the most impassioned movement is the doubt-wracked "My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
In that context, the final "Earthquake" sounds naively descriptive and anti-climactic. The Guarneri performance also undercut the intensity of the music, with tempos a shade too quick. This was especially apparent in passages with repeated notes, which sounded not implacable, but merely impatient.
The glories of the Guarneri tone and cohesion were abundantly evident, but all members contributed inconsistencies of pitch and tone as well. Violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree and cellist David Soyer sounded tired, and perhaps exasperated by an awareness that this was less than an optimal Guarneri performance.
Had the "Seven Last Words"--lasting just under an hour here--stood alone, the impression might have been more completely positive. But the program began with Haydn's Quartet in G, Opus 54, No. 1. The players got over the initial misintonation, but never made more of the piece than a superfluous warm-up.