Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross (oratorio version, 1801)
Petra Labitzke (soprano), Gabriele Wunderer (contralto), Daniel Sans (tenor), Christof Fischesser (bass)
Chamber Choir of Europe
Mannheim Kurpfälzisches Chamber Orchestra/Nicol Matt
rec. Hotel Wartburg, Mannheim, 7-9 January 2002
Haydn’s Seven last words had a very peculiar history. Originally commissioned as a series of orchestral meditations for Cadiz Cathedral in 1785, it was subsequently arranged by the composer for string quartet and published in this form in 1787. However in 1794 Haydn discovered that Joseph Freibert, a local choirmaster in Passau, had made a further arrangement of the work for soloists, chorus and orchestra - adding recitatives of his own composition. Haydn had the Freibert arrangement sent to him, and proceeded to give the work a thorough-going revision finally publishing the work as an oratorio in 1891, over fifteen years after its first performance. This ‘oratorio version’ became widely popular, but in recent years the string quartet version has also gained ground, rather eclipsing the original orchestral work which has however also been recorded several times. The oratorio is now a comparative rarity.
Haydn’s revision of Freibert’s work abandoned the choirmaster’s recitatives, described as “mediocre” in the booklet with this issue - do they survive? - substituting chorale-like settings of Christ’s words before each movement. For much of the rest, this ‘oratorio version’ is simply the original orchestral version with new words in German added - the subtitles of the original version were the words of Christ from the Vulgate, given in Latin. These are given in the booklet although those for the last movement are missing, but no translation is provided. The original score published in 1801 by Breitkopf and Härtel gives words in German and Italian only, but a facsimile is available online. Variety is added by allocating some of the choral material to a quartet of soloists, whose lines intersperse but rarely overlap those of the chorus, very much in the style of the late Haydn masses. On rare occasions the added vocal parts obscure melodic material in the orchestra, as at the beginning of the movement Frau, hier siehe deine Sohn. Later in the same movement Haydn creates a new melodic line for the solo soprano out of the fragmentary phrases which constituted the original, so gains outweigh any losses.
In fact there is one new movement which Haydn added specifically for this version, and which is therefore found neither in the original orchestral score nor in the string quartet adaptation. This is a weird piece, scored entirely for wind and brass and featuring some startling harmonic dissociations of the sort that Haydn employed in his depiction of Chaos in The Creation. The ensemble is oddly balanced, too: only one flute against two each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones and a double bassoon. The flute has no difficulty in making itself heard, almost like a plaintive voice set against the rest of mankind but there is one passage where the whole ensemble has a crescendo to fortissimo against which the only moving part is that of the first bassoon. Not surprisingly the bassoonist stands no chance whatsoever of being heard - and he isn’t here. Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony also seems to have expected this sort of heroic defiance from his bassoons - for many years conductors used to bolster the relevant passage with horns - but it is hard to see, even with period instruments, what sort of balance the composers expected in these sorts of passages. Berlioz when he wrote similar exposed lines used to double them up - he asks for four bassoons in the Symphonie fantastique, for example - and this surely confirms suspicions that even when composers were writing for the bassoons in this hopeful manner there were problems with audibility.
This interlude is followed by I thirst, and in this performance Haydn’s marking Adagio is converted into a rather jaunty Allegretto. Although it is tempting to bring a variety of pace to a long work of this sort - Haydn himself was concerned by this problem - this is most certainly the wrong place to do it. One of the most impressive things about this work is the way in which Haydn himself introduces variety into the series of slow movements by variations in texture. The grandeur of the whole is decreased by any attempt to add variety of tempo to it. Also it anticipates the sudden acceleration of the thrilling earthquake movement which brings the work to a conclusion. This is properly impressive here although it is strange that Haydn does not use trombones, as he has already employed them in earlier movements, and follows on from a low held E¨ from the solo bass at the end of the previous movement. This makes for a very impressive ‘dying fall’ unique to this oratorio version.
The orchestral playing is sensitive throughout and very well balanced with modern instruments playing in period-informed style - plenty of violin tone. The small choir makes a good solid sound coping with some very tricky writing in places with total aplomb. It is interesting to note how Haydn sometimes adjusts the female lines vis-à-vis the violins, keeping his original harmony intact while avoiding taking the sopranos too high where they are doubling the first violins. Note, for example, the way he subtly avoids taking the top vocal line up to a high C in the penultimate movement. All in all this is a very good performance, despite some reservations over the tempi adopted by the conductor. The soloists make a well-matched team, and the recording is finely present.
There are a number of alternative recordings currently available of the ‘oratorio’ version of the Seven last words. Of these the best established is that by Harnoncourt, using a rather larger chorus. His period instruments are less persuasive than those here and the low E¨ produced by his bass soloist in the passage preceding the earthquake is almost inaudible. The LPO recording by Jurowski has more impressive names among the solo line-up, but Christopher Maltman seems an unlikely candidate to produce a low E¨ either. Antonio de Almeida in a Moscow recording simply hands the line in question over to the choral basses, and with modern instruments he produces a very weighty sound while his Russian brass players deploy a very vibrato-laden tone. I have not been able to hear the Jurowski version, or that by Helmut Rilling; the latter is the only recording that comes with any sort of coupling in the form of a fragmentary Requiem by Michael Haydn. A version by Janos Ferencsik, nearly thirteen minutes longer than this one, superbly maintains Haydn’s slow speeds throughout but is only obtainable as part of a 3 CD set including the orchestral and string quartet versions – probably a degree of overkill.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
All in all this is a very good performance.