Joseph Haydn's nine-movement "The Last Seven Words of Our Savior on the Cross" is probably the noblest nonvocal music ever conceived for use in Holy Week, especially when played with such gripping intensity as the Juilliard Quartet brought to it last night at the Library of Congress.
"The Last Words" is specifically designed for today, Good Friday. The magnificent seven central movements -- all adagios about 10 minutes in length -- were written as interludes between the sermons of the traditional three-hour devotional service. Each is derived from a principal statement of Christ on the Cross. For instance, the deep, dark opening largo from "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" and the shattering fourth from "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me."
Ever since this music was composed in 1785, there has been a problem of how to perform it without the sermon to separate the movements. How do either the players or the listeners maintain concentration over such a span when each work follows the same plan, the same speeds and an overwhelming persistence of minor harmonies?
Only the slashing, violent movements that bracket the adagios -- the first evoking the tragedy of the Passion and the finale portraying the earthquake that shook Calvary after Christ's death -- provide emotional contrasts (these two, by the way, were played last night with the kind of virtuoso high drama that only the Juilliard provides among today's quartets).
So far as the concentration of the Juilliard on these works was concerned, the players seemed as intent on Haydn's deeper implications as they normally are on the profoundest metaphysics of late Beethoven. The continuing deliberate pace was steady. And those desperate lyric lines, sometimes almost operatic, that often fell to first violinist Robert Mann and cellist Joel Krosnick were almost achingly eloquent.
Some members of the audience began to get a little fidgety near the end. This is music that takes awhile to get to know. Haydn himself acknowledged this problem. But what could the Juilliard have done? Hired preachers to sermonize last night between the movements? Certainly not.
The concert, which was without an intermission, opened with the reverential slow movement of Haydn's E-flat major quartet, Op. 20, No. 1.
The program will be repeated tonight in observance of Good Friday, and broadcast live at 8 p.m. on WETA-FM (91).