Haydn: Die sieben letzten Worte

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LABELS: Opus 111
WORKS: Die sieben letzten Worte
PERFORMER: Ann-Christine Larsson (soprano), Martina Borst (mezzo-soprano), Frieder Lang (tenor), Peter Lika (bass); Chorus Musicus, Das Neue Orchester/Christoph Spering
If the original orchestral version of the Seven Last Words is the most rewarding, the choral arrangement is essential listening for Haydn lovers, especially for the austere, archaic interlude for wind band inserted by the composer between the fourth and fifth Words. Of the handful of existing CD versions, only Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec) does full justice to the mingled drama, pathos and mystic ecstasy of this extraordinary music. On this new disc Christoph Spering certainly has the measure of the work’s drama, as he demonstrates in the Introduzione, with its acerbic, wind-dominated textures – raw, rasping horns to the fore – and almost feverish urgency. In the subsequent Words he shows a keen ear for the colour and subtlety of Haydn’s orchestration. And the chorus sing well enough, if without quite the focused intensity of Harnoncourt’s Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Where Harnoncourt decisively scores for me is in the immense breadth he allows each movement. Like other conductors, Spering seeks to introduce a specious variety by taking the three Alla breve numbers (2, 5 and 6) at an easily flowing tempo, and in the process compromises the music’s gravity and chromatic anguish. By far the worst sufferer is No. 5, ‘I thirst’, where the ‘parched’ pizzicato quavers trip along almost flippantly and the excruciating dissonances register far more casually than with Harnoncourt. The soloists, especially the rather tremulous soprano, are also eclipsed by their counterparts on the Teldec set, which is still unrivalled as a performance of this exalted, monumental work. Richard Wigmore