When I first heard this work, only a couple of years ago, it was
as part of Good Friday meditation in an abbey church. The nine
movements are inter-linked by suitable biblical readings. It was
very moving. The more common String Quartet was used quite suitably
for such an intimate affair. However I came away from the event
spiritually uplifted but musically a little disappointed, feeling
that it was not an especially good bit of Haydn. Now however,
having heard this, the original chamber orchestra version, I feel
original commission to Haydn was unusual. It came from a canon
of Cadiz Cathedral, who simply specified an orchestral work
based on the Seven Last Words. As all previous settings had
been vocal, like the one by Heinrich Schütz, the idea was
original, particularly as the intention was to drape the church,
all over, with dark curtains to make, one imagines, an especially
theatrical effect. Then it was performed with the words spoken
from the pulpit immediately before the movement in question.
It must have been quite an experience.
‘Seven Words’ are the Seven Sentences which are a compilation,
from the gospels, of Jesus’ last sayings as he hung from the
cross. They are points of meditation and this is what Haydn
aims to achieve. Effectively then these are seven slow movements
preceded by a suitable solemn introduction and ending with
the thunderstorm which the gospels tell us marked the moment
when Christ died. Musically therefore the sequence ends in
high drama with the shortest but most aggressive and fast
music of the entire work.
you feel a slight sense of déja-vu then it’s because the elegance
of the melodies seems to have been plucked from the slow movements
of Haydn’s late-period symphonies. In fact they are not all
very slow, and it would be wrong to think that they are. There
are, especially in this carefully thought out performance,
fine contrasts of tempo.
the metronome on the sonatas - and I have no score to hand
- reveals for instance that Sonata 1 clocks in at crotchet=c.58
and Sonata 2 at crotchet =c.48, both with moving quavers.
Sonata IV at crotchet=c.69. None of these are fast but nevertheless
utilise quite a wide range of tempo.
then there’s the question of variety within the instrumentation.
The minutely printed but very interesting essay by Adélaide
de Place mentions the flute’s first appearance in Sonata III,
which is most welcome and apt as one is asked to contemplate
the forthcoming state of paradise. I would also mention the
horn writing in various places, particularly in the serious
Sonata IV. There is also some charming and much needed pizzicato
violin writing in Sonata V ‘I thirst’ possibly representing
trickling water. However the whole mood changes with heavy,
repeated string quavers because Jesus was given bitter hyssop
to drink not cool refreshing water.
performance, re-released as a Virgin Classic, having been
out of the catalogue for a while, brings out the passion of
the music. The recording is clear and focused. Armin Jordan,
who died in September 2006, handles the music in an almost
romantic vein; there is no harm in that. Looking through his
discography one sees that this was not typical territory
for him. Nevertheless he adds a powerful dimension to the
music and makes the experience grow convincingly, demonstrating
Christ’s pain and despair as you approach the work’s climax.
The Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, founded in 1978 - there
are no biographical notes in the booklet - specialise in music
of this period. Although they appear not to use original instruments
they do use original techniques and have a crisp and un-woolly
during the period of Lent the performance feels most atmospheric
and apt, allowing the music every opportunity to present itself
at its best.