The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


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