Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Glossa; MDG
WORKS: The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross (with Intermezzi by Ron Ford on Glossa release)
PERFORMER: Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century/Frans Brüggen (Glossa); Leipzig Quartet (MDG)
CATALOGUE NO: GCD 921109 (Glossa); 907 1550-6 (hybrid CD/SACD) (MDG)

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Thiemo Wind’s liner notes to the orchestral version of Haydn’s Seven Last Words theorise that the work may have been written earlier than their official dating to 1786-7; a newspaper announcement of a concert including ‘various large Passion Symphonies, composed by HAYDN, with a large Orchestra and Organ’, dated to Rotterdam on April 1 1784, sounds suspiciously like them.

Speculation, of course, but the venue in Cadíz for which they were officially commissioned had opened the year before. Whatever the truth, the music is the same – or it would be had Frans Brüggen not made some small but significant additions.

Haydn’s movements are interspersed here by ‘intermezzi’ (2004) contributed by the Dutch-American composer Ron Ford, whose interjections, though tiny (lasting only a second or two each) cannot be programmed out.

A pity, since in this live period-instrument interpretation tempos are finely judged and the many expressive effects in Haydn’s depiction of the last words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels are powerfully underlined.

Without Ford’s unnecessary interpolations, this would have been a leading contender; as it is, preference must go to Le Concert des Nations under Jordi Savall, who not only recorded the piece at the Cadíz foundation but included the spoken texts between Haydn’s movements, as was originally intended.

Haydn in fact made two more versions of the piece – as a choral work and arranged for string quartet – as well as approving a keyboard edition by other hands. The austere string quartet version works well, and receives a sensitive and disciplined account here from the Leipzig players, who play on modern instruments.

There’s an intimate sense of potency in their reading, though it occasionally lacks decisive attack and momentum (essential in a lengthy sequence of slow movements) and they tend to underplay its expressive power.

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As alternative, the Lindsays’ eloquent account on modern instruments may just have the edge over the Fitzwilliam Quartet on period instruments. George Hall