Haydn: Seven Last Words

COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Naïve s
ALBUM TITLE: Haydn
WORKS: Seven Last Words
PERFORMER: Sandrine Piau (soprano), Ruth Sandhoff (mezzo-soprano), Robert Getchell (tenor), Harry van der Kamp (bass); Accentus; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Laurence EquilbeyNaïve V 5045 53:14 mins
CATALOGUE NO: V 5045
Haydn composed his set of orchestral meditations on the last words spoken by Jesus for a Passiontide service at Cadiz Cathedral in 1786. So successful was the result that he made an arrangement for string quartet the following year, while Hummel made a version for piano which Haydn also sanctioned. But arguably the most fitting form of the work is the choral version made by Haydn himself in 1795-6, after his encounter with an edition he heard in Passau made by a minor composer that showed him the inherent possibilities. ‘I think

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I could have handled the vocal

parts better myself,’ was Haydn’s laconic comment.

The result is not heard very often, though the introduction of four soloists and chorus singing appropriate devotional texts certainly gives a new dimension to the original. The problem with the work in any form, as the composer himself recognised, is to maintain the listener’s interest in a lengthy sequence of slow movements mitigated only by the excitement of the short final earthquake. In addition, Haydn added a further slow introduction to the final three Words for the choral version, scoring it imposingly for a sombre wind band.

The dark tone colours of this additional section glow with a particularly baleful richness in the period-instrument version by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under Laurence Equilbey, and her ability to set tempos that maintain momentum within the parameters of the music keeps her performance alive. It comes in at five minutes less than the version by the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra under Frieder Bernius, which also suffers from thicker textures and a less clear acoustic. The soloists are pretty well matched on both versions, though the choral ensemble Accentus is more expressive and alert for Equilbey than their counterparts for Bernius.

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Of the handful of other versions available, Harnoncourt’s with Concentus Musicus Wien has been much admired, but Equilbey’s sense of colour, motion and even drama finally wins the day for her, as does the clarity of the sound. George Hall