While the Klenke Quartett has recorded the "Haydn Quartets" of Mozart, Berlin Classics' Haydn: Sieben Worte reflects the group's first foray into the work of Haydn himself. Haydn's Die Sieben Letzten Worte Unseres Erlõse an Kreuze (Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross) is certainly anything but typical, being a stripped-down, black and white recasting of his now rarely heard orchestral work of that name; the string quartet version, ironically, is more frequently performed than any of the four versions Haydn created. This Berlin Classics disc was recorded live at the Stadtkirche St. Peter und Paul in Weimar in 2006, presumably for a rapt audience, as there is no coughing or other distractions; likewise, the recording is full and dynamically alive as there is no applause at the end of the performance. That's not to say there aren't moments where the music is difficult to hear; the Klenke approaches a pianissimo as though it's a sacred object, something to be venerated and worshipped, and sometimes it comes in so gently that you wonder when it is just going to go ahead and play the note. Moments that are more passionate tend to lead to some strident tones and digging into the strings, and tempi are often agonizingly slow. The Kodály Quartet's wham-bam-thank you ma'am performance brings the Seven Words in just under 55 minutes, whereas the Emerson String Quartet's takes 69; but it adds a movement. This Klenke Quartett performance lasts a whopping 74:17 without anything added; "I Thirst" alone lasts 12 minutes.
The booklet note is especially nice, and it even contains a diagram of the relevant biblical texts, the explicit musical motives Haydn used, and how they relate to one another. The music-making is of a generally high level, but recording such a long and involved work live for release seems like walking a tightrope: a "perfect" performance is impossible. Under such circumstances, and as the market saturation of Die Sieben Letzten Worte runs so deep, invariably one's live recording is going to pale in the company of others where refinements have been made. Moreover, the recording doesn't project much of a "live" ambience. The performance itself was probably a joy to behold, and there is still, at points, some sense of that excitement present here, just not enough of it to raise this Sieben Letzten Worte above the pack.