Yesterday evening the Jupiter Players performed the second of their three summer recitals at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street. The summer series is focused on those composers who had some association, no matter how slight, with the music of the Mannheim tradition; and this program accordingly featured works by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Franz Danzi and Haydn.
The program opened with Albrechtsberger's Fugue in D minor, Op. 1, No 6 (1780). Originally composed for three guitars, it was performed here in an arrangement by Beethoven for string quartet. Albrechtsberger is much better known as a theorist and teacher than as a composer and was in fact an expert on counterpoint. His influence in this area was enormous as he was the instructor of Anton Reicha who in turn went on to teach counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire. Among Albrechtsberger's other pupils, the most famous was Beethoven who was referred to Albrechtsberger by Haydn himself. (Either Haydn felt Albrechtsberger's mastery of counterpoint to be greater than his own, or he simply found it too difficult to put up with the young Beethoven's intractable attitude and wanted to be rid of him.) Albrechtsberger did compose of number of chamber works, but most are extremely obscure and rarely if ever played today. Immediately following this piece, the ensemble performed a short Fugue in G major by Antonio Salieri.
The next work was Danzi's Flute Quartet in D minor Op. 56 No. 2 (1821). Danzi himself was one of those minor figures who appear at key junctures of musical history without ever managing to attain any degree of fame for themselves. Largely forgotten today, Danzi was an acquaintance of Mozart, Beethoven and von Weber and held prominent positions in the orchestras at Mannheim and Munich. He was also during his lifetime one of the most skilled cellists in Europe. The bulk of his chamber works, though, were not written for strings but rather for wind ensembles, of which the present quartet is an excellent example. It was a light work but very enjoyable to hear; the final movement, an allegretto, was quite lively.
After intermission, the musicians returned to perform what for me was the highlight of the program, Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Op. 51, Hob. III:50-56 (Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze). The piece, arranged for string quartet by the composer in 1787, was in its original form an orchestral work commissioned in 1783 by one Don José Sáenz de Santa María for performance on Good Friday in a subterranean Spanish church, the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva. The setting, as described by Haydn, sounds like something from a Dumas novel:
"The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began."
Catholicism in Spain was still then shrouded in mystery and secrecy - the dreaded Spanish Inquisition was still in existence at this point, though not as powerful as it had been in the previous century - and one wonders what the down to earth Viennese composer really thought about this commission, especially when it came time to be paid and he was given a cake filled with golden coins. The work itself is one of the most powerful Haydn composed and completely unearthly as it proceeds from an introduction in D minor through seven slow movements until finally culminating in Il terremoto ("the earthquake") in C minor. No matter what one's religious inclinations, it's difficult to listen to this piece, even with the lights on, and not experience an overwhelming sense of awe.
The guest artist at this recital was violinist Danbi Um whom I had coincidentally heard perform on recent broadcasts of the Young Artists Showcase on WQXR. She did an excellent job there on Schubert's Quarttetsatz, Dvořák's String Sextet in A Major and Webern's Langsamer Satz. I was just as impressed by her virtuosity at Monday evening's performance.