The Seven Last Words of the Saviour on the Cross
was originally written for full orchestra as a commission by Cadiz Cathedral in 1785. The idea was to provide a series of meditations for Good Friday. The words are those appended above. In 1786 Haydn transcribed the work for string quartet. He later added a version for chorus and orchestra in 1796. The quartet version is one that I’m familiar with. Indeed I heard it Easter 2013 and with the words read before each movement it was most effective. There are good recordings from the Amadeus
(DG), Aeolian (Decca) and Los Angeles (Philips) to name just three. This is how I usually want to hear the work although its special nature means it is by no means a common event.
The piano version comes from 1787 but was not written by Haydn himself. However, he strongly approved what his publisher had produced and had copies made. Of all the versions the piano is the one least performed and there are not many recordings to chose from. I should mention one that may appeal if you warm to the forte piano of Ronald Brautigam
; Michael Cookson thought it “fine but not distinguished”. For myself the recording by John McCabe on Decca has fulfilled my desire to play this work, which is very rare. His reading is in a 12 CD set 443 785-2, containing all of Haydn’s piano works. It's well worth having at about Ł50. The present recording therefore fills a gap in the market at high budget price and continues a line long established by Jenö Jandó who was the Naxos “house pianist” at one stage. He recorded a number of Haydn piano music discs that have been noted here (Sonatas 1-10
The “problem” with the present work is that it is not usual to have eight slow movements, one after the other. That is why Hans Keller couldn’t accept the quartet edition, also because the textures are clearly orchestral. Here it is apparent from the start that this is going to be a strong account and the piano is captured very agreeably. After the Introduction
with its “Sturm und drang” Jandó leads us into the Largo
. He plays beautifully but the suspicion remains that this is the wrong instrument for this music. That said, it’s apparent that Jandó does not share this doubt and is doing his utmost to convince the listener that this is a piano piece. One thing that does come to the listener’s mind is the influence Haydn, rather than Mozart, had on the young Beethoven. If you played this music to an unsuspecting listener he or she might think it by the younger composer, especially in the Cantabile
of "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise", words spoken by Jesus on the cross to the repentant thief.
I had started off listening to this disc dubious about the merits of this piano version but time and again the playing convinced me of its validity. The Grave
of No. 3 is so well conveyed and there is a rightness about it all. In the early years of Naxos I listened to a fair few of Jandó’s discs but I did not appreciate how good a pianist he is. As an example the final Largo
“Into my hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!” illustrates his deep understanding of the music and the complete sincerity of Haydn’s faith. It's most moving. The piece ends in dramatic manner with “The earthquake” which is not easy at all on the piano but Jandó certainly conveys the chaos of the occasion. Thus he brings this highly committed performance to a conclusion.
This is certainly not a disc for everyday nor did Haydn intend the work as such but it is well executed and recorded and will appeal to those who love Haydn and don’t know this version.
David R Dunsmore