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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Concert Review: Notes from the Underground

The Attacca Quartet play Haydn in a crypt.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Members of the Attacca Quartet rehearse in the crypt of the Church of the Intercession.
Photo by Andrew Ousley.
The Church of the Intercession sits on the corner of West 155th and Broadaway, an imposing 100-hyear-old stone pile located across from the equally historic Trinity Church Cemetary. A fantasy of peaked Gothic arches and stone passageways, the church is now home to the Crypt Sessions, a recital series played deep beneath the earth in the church's crypt. On Thursday night, this unlikely venue hosted the Attacca Quartet, performing Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross

The setting is not as terrifying as one might imagine. Faded oriental rugs adorn the floor. Candles burn in one corner throwing flickering light on a shadowed piano. And a stained-glass window on the east side of the crypt gives some illumination in the darkness. Audience members and players sit on the same hard, uncomfortable chairs, promoting maximum concentration on the work at hand. And the sound in the stone vault is amazing, round, bold and muscular without the blur or muffled quality that one gets in such "as is" concert venues.

The Attacca Quartet are a rising young ensemble that just completed performances of Franz Josef Haydn's 68 string quartets. The Seven Last Words is a unique piece, part exploration of the possibilities of the string quartet, a sort of oratorio without words where pure music alone delivers the religious message. Although Haydn adapted the original orchestral work in a setting for string quartet, this concert offered a new performing edition, extracted by the Attaca players from Haydn's orchestral score.

Haydn was known for his light and humorous chamber works, but the Seven Last Words is the composer at his most serious. It consists of ten brief pieces that retells the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ in stark musical language. The work moves from a severe, minor-key opening through aria-like movements that describe the agony, thirst and ultimate transfiguration of Christ on the cross. The work ends with a final, shattering earthquake, a depiction of the grief at the land itself at the suffering endured on the Hill of the Skull.

From the first notes, the crypt setting enhanced the tone and power of the players, acting as a sort of natural amplifier without causing distortion of any kind. The slight echo of the vault made each of the four instruments sound firm and resonant,  with the ostinatos played by cello and viola having the thunderous power of a Stravinsky ballet. The violins alternated between soft singing lines and a keening, minor-key wail capturing the momentous nature of these events and the emotions of all involved.

Violinist Amy Schroeder led the way in the middle movements, with one letting her instrument function in the role of a soprano singing lines in an oratorio. She was ably supported by her counterpart Keiko Tokunga and new violist Nathan Schram. In Haydn's music, the violist often has the most interesting music to play as that was the preferred instrument of the composer himself. Holding down the bottom end, cellist Andrew Yee played with grace and force, alternating chunky chords with deep melodic lines.

The work, loosely divided into two parts was played without break, with the buildup to the death of Christ having its own inexorable momentum. The most poignant moment came in the description of thirst, as plucked second violin and viola suggested the falling of droplets of water against an outburst from the other players. The muted penultimate movement suggested the Resurrection with its sense of hushed awe. This and the final earthquake had a terrible power, balancing equally with the sense of wonder and transfiguration that permeate the rest of this extraordinary work.

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