The Vermeer in its original incarnation was irrevocably broken 11 days before Saturday’s concert at the Kimbell Art Museum, however, when cellist Marc Johnson died of a heart attack. His former student Kurt Baldwin stepped in at the last minute. The poignancy of the three remaining members performing a work which they had played together so many times, a work depicting the death of Jesus on the cross, only a few days after the passing of a collaborator of so many years’ standing, was palpable.
So was it their best performance ever? Was it the technical equivalent of their boxed set of Beethoven quartets that sits on my shelf, or the recording of this very piece that earned the Vermeer a Grammy nomination? No. Of course it wasn’t. They retired eight years ago and are grieving the death of a dear friend. So there were pitch issues and a missed shift here and there, and sometimes they just sounded tired.
None of that mattered much.
They schooled listeners in interpreting Haydn’s music. Bow strokes were just the right length, crisp without being choppy, and the amount of projection and depth of sound that first violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi achieved with so little bow weight was remarkable in piano and pianissimo sections. Phrase endings were nearly flawless. The Vermeer is the definitive modern interpreter of the quartet version of The Seven Last Words of Christ. To hear them play it for what is likely one of the last times, even without their original cellist, is a great gift. Their best moments Saturday afternoon were breathtaking.
This piece is novel in that it includes seven main sections, all labeled as “sonatas,” and all in slow tempos, bookended by a maestoso introduction and a presto conclusion meant to evoke the earthquake that believers assert occurred immediately following Christ’s death on the cross.
Haydn originally composed the work for full orchestra, and then a year or two later arranged it for quartet. There is also an oratorio version and a solo piano rendition that Haydn did not create himself, but did personally endorse. Now, the quartet version is most frequently played.
Before each section, speakers read meditations on each of Christ’s last words, beginning with “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” and ending with “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” For this performance, the speakers were nearly evenly divided among clergy and laity, and the clergy represented Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism.
For the most part, seemingly with one exception, the meditations were thoughtful and respectful of nonbelievers as well as members of other faiths, although no Eastern religions were represented.
Architect Renzo Piano, who designed the new addition to the Kimbell including the auditorium, was present for the performance, and the auditorium was completely full.