Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross Hob XX/2 (64:18)
Lisa Milne (soprano); Ruxandra Donose (mezzo); Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Christopher Maltman (baritone); London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 28 November 2009
LPO-0051 CD [64:18]

The story of Haydns commission to write a series of slow movements to form part of a Good Friday service in Cadiz Cathedral in 1785 is well known. Originally for orchestra the composer soon arranged it for string quartet but other hands went further and made a choral version. Haydn in turn produced a choral version in 1795, adding brief choral introductions to each movement and an introduction to the second part scored for wind instruments only. The conductor on this disc has gone one stage further by producing an amalgam of the choral and orchestral versions. The former predominates but where in the orchestral version the composer asks for a repeat of the exposition section of each Word we hear first the original orchestral version and then the choral version. This does give more variety of texture and in effect another layer of variation but does tend to remind this listener at least that the original orchestral version is both more economical and more effective than the choral rewriting.

Haydn was obviously aware of the dangers of monotony resulting from a series of slow movements in succession, albeit that they were intended to be separated by sermons. He cunningly varied the character of each movement so that even in the quartet version the listeners interest is retained. On this disc Jurowski appears to go a step further to avoiding potential monotony by tending towards faster speeds than are usual. I am not convinced by this. The result can be more to trivialise the music than to add tension or avoid boredom. The solution often adopted for performances of the quartet or orchestral versions of having readings or even sermons between the movements is preferable, not least in focusing attention on the implications of each Word, something which I am sure was at the front of the composers mind.

The performance is otherwise generally satisfactory, although some may find Lisa Milnes vibrato troubling, and the final movement the earthquake lacks the power that other recordings have been able to produce. The problem for me is that this is one of those works that needs a superlative performance or it is nothing. It can be immensely moving if played and sung with real understanding and focus, but anything less can leave the listener cold, unmoved and even uninterested. For me at least, this performance falls into the second group and its undoubted qualities in terms of recording, presentation and general professionalism are insufficient to do justice to the music.

John Sheppard