The conjunction of Western and Orthodox Easters along with the observance of Passover this year has meant a particularly rich offering of appropriate music for these days holy to so many. Last week at the Harris Theater, we saw a particularly well-received “Saint Matthew Passion” of Bach with John Nelson leading his Soli Deo Gloria forces and gifted tenor Nicholas Phan as The Evangelist.
Wednesday evening at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Hyde Park, The University of Chicago Presents showcased its Holy Week contribution, an unusual pairing of two increasingly prominent youthful groups, the Miami-based chamber chorus Seraphic Fire and Chicago’s Spektral Quartet. And this match was at the service of an even rarer pairing — two quite different versions of the same work, Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ on The Cross” — essentially performed at the same time.
Haydn wrote the first version of this masterwork — for orchestra — in 1787 for a Good Friday service of intense contemplation in Cadiz, Spain. So successful was this event, and nearly simultaneous ones elsewhere in Europe, that over the next decade admirers, and, eventually, Haydn himself, produced additional versions — for string quartet alone, as an oratorio with large chorus, vocal soloists and full orchestra; and even one for solo piano, each running just under an hour.
The intensity of the quartet version is due in part to the “Seven Words,” the phrases attributed to Jesus of Nazareth during his crucifixion, being written in to the score in their Latin form. The first violin sounds the corresponding phrases out — without those words — note for note in prayer and anguish. Chicagoans will remember some 20 annual presentations of the work by the now-disbanded Vermeer Quartet with meditations on each phrase by leading religious and social thinkers.
The oratorio version has had the least success, its often peppy style and large forces seeming too much at odds with the dark, meditative music and story. To put these most disparate versions together might have seemed an intriguing idea. And the two ensembles Wednesday night carried out their parts at a high level and with considerable devotion. Despite this, however, this listener found the results an unsuccessful mash-up of two very different forms of expression. (Some years ago, the Juilliard Quartet enlisted four distinguished singers to try to achieve on recording a balance of forces that might serve a single purpose.)
In the beautifully just resonant-enough Rockefeller, the solo sounds of the Spektral and the a cappella portions of the aptly named Seraphic (normally a 13-member group; here supplemented with two additional singers) were equally pure and hypnotic. But together they made an admixture that took the mind and ear away from Haydn’s essence. Not quite as disconcerting as if a pianist were asked to play Mussorgsky’s original solo version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” while a symphonic ensemble played the popular Ravel orchestration at the same time, but the thought occurred.
Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, taking the Spektral’s rotating first violin chair, was a student of Vermeer first chair Shmuel Ashkenasi, and dedicated his group’s contribution to the memory of Marc Johnson, the Vermeer’s cellist who died unexpectedly last week. Patrick Quigley, the young founder and director of Seraphic Fire, is clearly a brilliant and inspirational figure — the group was the only classical ensemble nominated for Grammys for two different albums this year — and his chorus reaches toward perfection in both group sound and when individuals take crucial solo turns.
I look forward to hearing each group again and soon. But next time separately.