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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seven last words of our Saviour on the Cross - original version for chamber orchestra (1786)
(1. Introduzione [5.55]; 2. Sonata 1 ‘Father forgive them’ [6.55]; 3. Sonata II ‘Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise [6.31]; 4. Sonata III ‘Woman behold thy son’ [7.27]; 5. Sonata IV ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’ [6.35]; 6. Sonata V ‘I thirst’ [5.41]; 7. Sonata VI ‘It is finished’ [6.27]; 8. Sonata VIII ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit’ [5.51]; 9. Thunderstorm [1.36])
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/Armin Jordan
rec. Chapelle de la Fondation Eugène Napoléon, 27-29 October 1992
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3913332 [53.24]


Experience Classicsonline

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 quite different.

The 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. 

The ‘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. 

If 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. 

Putting 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.

And 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. 

The 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 sound. 

Listening during the period of Lent the performance feels most atmospheric and apt, allowing the music every opportunity to present itself at its best.

Gary Higginson



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