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Haydn’s The Seven Last Words - A selective survey
by Ralph Moore

Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of the Redeemer on the Cross (Die sieben letzten Worte des Erlösers am Kreuz) is probably the longest purely instrumental work of its era and typical of the composer’s innovation, in that it really had no stylistic precursors. It is by no means programmatic in the manner of The Creation; rather, it is intended to be “pure music” acting as an aid to spiritual exaltation and contemplation; nonetheless, it certainly contains depictive elements suggesting some of the events of the Passion, such as blows and scourging, weeping and lamentation. Although the original version was wordless, Haydn was also clearly fitting musical motifs to the Latin text of Christ’s words which would have been familiar to the congregation; hence we hear the speech rhythms of “Pater, pater” (Father, forgive them…Sonata I) and “Consummatum est” (as in the opening of Sonata VII and the actual words that Haydn wrote at the end of the score) clearly echoed in the musical subjects of the sonatas. Jordi Savall made two recordings on the Astrée and Alia Vox labels respectively, the first made in 1990 and the second in 2006, in the same Santa Cuerva in Cádiz where the Seven Last Words was first heard. In order to recreate something of the experience of the music in its original context as part of the Easter Passion devotional liturgy, in the first recording he restores some semblance of the homilies with short, Latin narratives interspersed between the musical numbers; in the second, he adds newly commissioned – somewhat controversial – meditations. Some listeners will want to skip those tracks, as Haydn’s music is perfectly coherent without any such interludes. Franz Bruggen goes one worse with his period instrument performance and intersperses Haydn’s sonatas with wholly inappropriate musical intermezzi written by a contemporary composer.

I refer you to the excellent review written by Glyn Pursglove back in 2007 for more historical and contextual information.

The work has nine movements sometimes referred to as “sonatas” or “meditations”: seven Adagios, each based on Christ’s last utterances, framed by an Introduction and a dramatic conclusion in Il terremoto (The Earthquake). Each one is in a different key and remarkably varied given the supposed constraints of its form. Haydn was keen to avoid boring his audience with a work whose predominant mood is necessarily slow, sombre and sedate - until the surprise conclusion of the earthquake which acts as such a contrast to that which precedes it. Haydn apparently subscribed to the theories of Christian Schubart (1739-1791), whereby every key has a different affective import, as per the D minor of the opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which Haydn chose for the opening Prelude – intense, tragic, violent; this is also music which weeps and sighs, as in “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in which Haydn’s personal, favourite key of F minor is used to depict sorrow and desolation. The movement begins in C minor but gradually moves towards redemption and paradise in a flowing C major. I cannot always decode – or even hear - the emotional significance of a specific key but I accept that it is there for musical sophisticates and certainly the more obvious ones are apparent even to a scribbling hack like me.

Some critics consider the original orchestral version - scored for two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings - to be the best form for the music; personally, I prefer the purity of the chamber music scoring and do not subscribe to the rather cynical opinion that the string quartet version is more often performed because it is cheaper. Even though it obviously cannot offer the same instrumental variety provided by brass, woodwind and flutes, I find that, for example, the intensity of the string quartet arrangement more vividly conveys the gentle suffering of the Blessed Mother depicted in the fourth sonata - and that version has over time proved to be the most popular and most frequently recorded.

Incidentally, I borrow this paragraph from Wikipedia as a point of interest: “The string quartet version has come under suspicion of authenticity due to an occasionally careless manner of transcription, with crucial wind passages left out and only the accompanimental figures in the strings retained. As a result, some quartets make their own adaptation, working from the orchestral original.”

The keyboard version, made in 1787, was probably made by a music publisher but Haydn himself edited the proofs and expressed his approval of the arrangement as "very good and made with remarkable diligence".

The spur to Haydn making his own choral version of the Seven Last Words was hearing the arrangement made by choirmaster Joseph Freiberth and presumably thinking he could do it better. Using a revision of Freiberth’s text made by the eventual librettist of The Creation, Baron Gottfried van Sweden, Haydn added parts for clarinet, contrabassoon and trombones and wrote a new, solemn introduction for wind instruments to be inserted between the fourth and fifth movements.

There are something like a hundred recordings of the four different incarnations combined but the majority are of the string quartet version. There are sure to be many great performances I have not covered below, but I do consider several important recordings from each of the categories, making a total of nineteen.

1) Original orchestral version (1786)
Antonio Janigro, I Solisti di Zagreb; Vanguard, 1966 [52:13] ADD

This is the oldest recording here but the sound is very good and apart from a little more vibrato than we are used to, it does not seem dated. It is a sharp, taut account, one of the fastest on record, without repeats. Orchestral textures are lean and while Janigro’s percussive, unsentimental attack might to some seem unsympathetic to music which is fundamentally elegiac, it thereby avoids undue sentimentality or indulgence. The accented beats and sprightly speeds put me in mind of Bach but there is no lack of gravity or tenderness in the passages conveying lament; there is surely room for a clean, driven, unfussy version such as this.

Jordi Savall, Les Concert des Nations; Astrée/Alia Vox 1990 [72:20] DDD

This is a grand, spacious account in an equally spacious church acoustic and the use of period instruments lends raw urgency without sounding under-powered or small scale. Just occasionally, however, I do find that his tempi drag – especially in Sonata IV – and I dislike the inclusion of spoken, Spanish-accented, Latin texts – the relevant extracts from the Gospels. I appreciate that this is a nod to the context and circumstances of the original commission but from a modern listener’s point of view it impedes the musical flow of the work as a whole. There are also times when – and apologies here for referencing the hoariest old complaint of those who prefer modern to period instruments – the strings really do whine and groan compared with versions by Muti or Janigro. Some movements do rather plod which emphasises the tendency for monotony despite Haydn’s invention. Still, if you like the sonority of the period band here, this or Savall’s later recording will please – and I do like the addition of prominent drums in the earthquake, even if the playing isn’t very tidy.

Riccardo Muti, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips, 1991 [53:19] DDD

Muti does not take all the exposition repeats and ends up taking the same time as Janigro while making a far lusher, plusher sound with his big orchestra. Modern instruments tend to tame the potentially raw, wild impact of the music, especially in the earthquake, but the weight of the playing there creates its own impact. There are obvious benefits in having such an imposing, impeccably tuned band playing so beautifully with flawless coordination. This might be too comfortably sumptuous for some tastes and there is perhaps an element of blandness in it, but the unfailing musicality and sheer depth of sonority here are a joy. This is one of the world’s great orchestras caught at its zenith under a conductor who appreciates how to create a lustrous orchestral sound without sacrificing drama, and I love it.

Jordi Savall, Les Concert des Nations; Alia Vox 2006 [67:50] DDD

Much that I said above regarding Savall’s earlier recording applies to this later one, but both the playing and engineering here are superior, providing better balance, richer sonority and less whine. Savall is also less inclined to the stateliness which robbed some movements in his earlier account of sufficient propulsion; “My God, my God”, Sonata IV, for example, is two minutes faster here and all the better for it. Il terremoto however, is a bit slower and I prefer the earlier version.

Unfortunately, Savall again includes very Spanish-Latin scriptural interludes (and in the DVD some newly commissioned reflections which really neither sit with the music nor with Haydn’s own convictions as a man of faith) and for many they remain merely a distraction to be avoided – but they are short and can be skipped.

Ensemble Resonanz; harmonia mundi 2018 [63:56] DDD

This is a certain YouTube and Classics Today music critic’s favourite and, unsurprisingly, I don’t like it at all; it has all the worst features of over-zealous period practice adherence: exaggerated dynamics - from blaring to being so quiet as to be inaudible - clunky, clumsy, bulging phrasing, strange pulling about of tempi, whining strings, thick orchestral textures and an opening so crude as to make the listener jump out of his/her seat before it retreats into inaudibility. It really is a strange recording whose excesses sound as if the performers do not trust the composer’s intentions, so impose a false drama upon proceedings. Of course, that approach works best for the final earthquake movement, but one minute and thirty-eight seconds of excitement does not redeem the rest.

You might disagree; test your response by sampling the recording on Spotify. I seriously dislike it.

2) String quartet version, Op. 51 (1787)

Kodály Quartet; Naxos 1989 [64:29] DDD

I have an irrational, sentimental attachment to this recording, as it was the one whereby I came to know this work and was for many years my sole version. Nonetheless, it is in any case very fine, as are so many of the Kodály Quartet’s contributions to the Naxos catalogue – especially their series of Haydn chamber music. It is a vibrant, immediate performance in excellent, vivid sound with plenty of air around it but no detail lost. The lead violinist, Attila Falvay, has a beautiful singing tone but all the players are masterly. My only reservation is that the tempo they adopt for the concluding earthquake movement is oddly stolid and as such anticlimactic – and that is enough to exclude it from being my top choice.

Lindsay String Quartet, ASV 1992 [70:32] DDD

This is a superb account; intonation is impeccable, attack formidable, phrasing and pacing ideal, all showcased by beautifully balanced sound. Peter Cropper’s first violin is quite forward, but with playing this good, you won’t mind. There are innumerable interpretative touches here which serve the music without seeming indulgent, and having the nerve to take a little longer over pauses and rubato pays dividends. There is an assuredness and repose about this account which is perfectly in harmony with the quiet mastery of the music. The very gentleness and subtlety of the Lindsays’ approach might not suit those who want a more overt, less restrained and refined interpretative stance, in which case I would suggest the broader manner of the Borodin Quartet or the forensic brilliance of the Pražák Quartet, but for those who esteem sensitivity and poise above all, this is the recording to have. There is no lack of drive in the finale, however which combines propulsion with tonal allure.

Quatuor Mosaďques, Astrée Auvidis/Naďve 1992 live [72;30] DDD

This recording has the double distinction of being the only live recording and the only period instrument string quartet I consider here. The performance was given on Good Friday in the Abbey of Fontevraud but there is no audience noise and the sound is first-rate – not over-reverberant. This is often cited as a favourite by those who want a historically informed account and I can hear why; their sound is sweet and true and balances are excellent – but to my ears an element of whining is inescapable and the drone becomes wearing, as is immediately apparent in the opening of the first sonata and its recurrent long lines. To some listeners, of course, that conveys what could be considered as the requisite lachrymose quality; I simply prefer the tonal amplitude of modern instruments whereas others like the rawness of gut. Played thus, Il terremoto carries more of a slight a suggestion of a fierce rustic dance than a cosmic convulsion – but perhaps that’s just me…

Borodin Quartet; Teldec 1993 [72:50] DDD

I reviewed this very favourably not long ago and have no reason to modify my response, so refer you to the link for my opinion. It remains one of my favourite versions; it is in a sense the chamber music equivalent of the Muti/BPO orchestral version, being grand and Romantic.

Talich Quartet; Calliope 1995 [59:35] DDD

The first thing to strike the listener here on the Introduction is the superb engineering revealing the energy of the Talich Quartet’s attack– but then the poignant sweetness of the second subject potently balances that ferocity. What a rich, burnished sound this quartet makes here; just occasionally you might require a little more tenderness in their phrasing as the intensity of their concentration can seem a mite unyielding and the first violin dominates somewhat but the playing per se is flawless and they encompass a wonderful range of tonal colouring. The pizzicato movement, Sonata V, is especially beguiling. Il terremoto is suitably implacable and driven – and not too slow at 1:58.

Emerson String Quartet; Deutsche Grammophon 2002 [60:03] DDD

The Emersons are a world-renowned quartet, and although some have found their Haydn lacking in sparkle and wit, such a concern is less germane in this piece, of course. Strangely, the DG sound is rather muffled and boomy compared with the best string quartet recordings here; inevitably that compromises the immediacy of their superb playing. There is nothing especially distinctive about their account and some might find lead violinist Eugene Drucker’s vibrato too pronounced; this is played in decidedly “old-fashioned Romantic” style, reminding me of similar reservations regarding the Amadeus Quartet a generation earlier. I like it but the dull sound and somewhat bland interpretation does not place it in the first rank.

Pražák Quartet; Praga 2011 [72:21] DDD

There seems to be a special vibrancy and brilliance in the enharmonics of the sound this quartet generate and they are also daring in their use of pauses and sudden, wide variations in dynamics; the cumulative effect of these features is to lend their account distinction and drama. This is the least comfortable, even the least “beautiful”, of the string quartet versions, especially as they are sometimes – but by no means always – sparing of vibrato in period style, despite playing modern instruments. There is a spareness and clarity to this recording which acts as a counterbalance – not an antidote, mind – to the Romantic approach of such as the Borodin Quartet. Having said that, I am just a little disappointed by their finale – it could be more biting and intense – but it is better than the Kodaly’s which constitutes their recording’s Achilles’ heel.

Cuarteto Casals; harmonia mundi 2012 [60:14] DDD

The Cuarteto Casals offers the ideal compromise between modern and period styles in that many of the features of an historically informed approach are apparent in their playing without what some might hear as the attendant disadvantages of using instruments supposedly of the era. Vibrato is used very sparingly but “bulging” is minimal and their tone is pure and sweet, if on the ascetic side. I find their judgement of tempi and dynamics to be perfect – they are quite daring in their willingness to go to extremes - and they are particularly fine in conjuring up a mood of desolation, such as in the “Pater, pater” opening of the second sonata and the invocation of the sorrows of the Blessed Mother in the third. There is also a special charm to the sonority they create in the pizzicato opening of “Sitio”, twice repeated later – there are so many touches like that, like the sordino opening to “Vater, in deine Hände”. Il terremoto has weight, passion and drive. The quality of the sound engineering is especially satisfying, too.
3) Piano version, Hob. XX:1C (1787)
John McCabe; Decca 1977 [52:48] ADD

I was given this many years ago as one of the first CDs I owned and I was hooked from the first sonorous, declamatory chords. You might not expect a piano - even a grand piano – to be able to rival a string quartet, let alone an orchestra, for variety and impact, but the late John McCabe does such a fine job in the way he varies tone and dynamics that he entirely inhabits Haydn’s world and shares that very successfully with the listener. He doesn’t push his luck by observing repeats but there is no sense of haste about this recording; indeed, at times he makes time stand still. There are some pleasing little ornamentations such as the occasional broken chord and acciaccatura but again, he doesn’t overdo those. You get a sense of how meticulously McCabe prepared Haydn’s score without the result ever sounding dry, academic or calculated; I am sure the composer himself would have approved. There is a lovely contrast between the free-flowing lyricism of the last sonata whose consolatory tone is abruptly curtailed by the abrupt transition into the savage Il terremoto, played here with percussive brilliance, “attaca subito”.

Ronald Brautigam; BIS 2002 [66:22] DDD

For my taste, performances on a fortepiano lack the range and resonance of a modern grand piano. Others like the over-resonant, even clangourous, sound here, whereas to me Beecham’s skeleton on the roof comes to mind. If you are not of my taste, sample this on YouTube to test your response. Of course, I acknowledge the artistry of the performer although I suggest that he pulls the phrasing about rather too much when the whole point of this music is its slow, steady, mesmeric effect; it really doesn’t need doctoring. Sorry, but I find the sound really wearing on the ear and to me the final movement sounds like a mechanic testing a vehicle’s tuning.

Jenő Jandó; Naxos 2013 [67:39] DDD

Jandó’s account is very much in the same vein as that of his predecessor, John McCabe – but it is a little broader and more indulgent. Strangely, I marginally prefer McCabe’s more classical restraint as being more in harmony with Haydn’s age and idiom, yet I also find that McCabe introduces a little more inner tension to the musical line and Jandó’s very percussive playing of the “earthquake” conclusion is certainly impressive but a little slow for my taste. In the end, however, there isn’t much in it and this is still a first-rate rendering of a score which lends itself surprisingly well to transcription for a modern grand piano.

4) Oratorio version, Hob. XX/2 (1796)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt; Concentus musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Teldec/Elatus/Warner Classics 1990 [62:43] DDD
Inga Nielsen (soprano)
Margareta Hintermeier (alto)
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor)
Robert Holl (bass)
Harnoncourt uses a somewhat larger chorus than Nicol Matt but obviously not as big as Jurowski’s (see both below); it is a grand, broad interpretation which moves in stately fashion. His period instruments are at times a little crude and his besetting tendency to clip phrases prevails; there are inevitably occasional balance issues especially with regard to the audibility lower instruments and the bass vocal line, but Robert Holl’s low D on “meinem Geist” (my spirit) is clear and by and large things come through despite the reverberant acoustic of the recording location, the Casino Zögernitz, in Vienna.

Soprano Inge Nielsen’s contribution is often the most striking as she harmonically floats above the main melodic line but all the soloists are good. The fourth movement, “Frau, hier siehe deinen Sohn”, is especially movingly and beautifully sung by all and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson’s tender singing of “Jesus rufet” opening the dynamic seventh movement and its repeat five minutes in, is simply heavenly. The weird second Introduction for winds and brass is also fascinating; perhaps it doesn’t quite sit with the rest of the work after all, being a subsequent addition to the score made specifically for the choral version but it certainly adds variety and interest, looking forward the dissonance of the opening “Chaos” introduction to The Creation only a couple of years later. I find the choral version of the “earthquake” conclusion to be less effective than the instrumental versions – somehow, to my ears, the chorus imparts a touch of banality – but it is done as well here as it can be in this form.

Nicol Matt, Kurpfälzischen Kammerorchster Mannheim, Nordic Chamber Choir; Brilliant 2002 [55:29] DDD
Petra Labitzke (soprano)
Gabriele Wunderer (alto)
Daniel Sana (tenor)
Christof Fischesser (bass)

Don Satz reviewed this comprehensively for MusicWeb twenty years ago and then Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewed the reissue of this recording on the Brilliant Classics label in 2012; I generally agree with their findings but I have to say that I have come round more to Harnoncourt’s recording as preferable in scale and impact than I did on first hearing, such that I find it hard to choose between his and Matt’s accounts.

This is a bold, striking version, faster and more energised than Harnoncourt’s. Matt uses a small choir and smaller band of modern instruments - but they play in period style with minimal vibrato. The semiquavers of the string underlay to the lamenting main theme in the first Introduction have almost the urgency and intensity of a Gluck operatic overture.

Obviously the names of Matt’s team of soloists do not have the cachet of Harnoncourt’s but they are a fine, homogeneous team; every one of them is pleasing and a match for their starrier counterpoints on Elatus, even if the tenor cannot match Rolfe-Johnson’s other-worldliness – but Christof Fischesser’s low D is impressive. The choir is rather less integrated than Harnoncourt’s – individual voices obtrude but not offensively so.

The second Introduction is hauntingly played rather more slowly than Harnoncourt and the instrumentalists generate a kind of Renaissance sonority and Matt’s Il terremoto emerges as rather more stirring than Harnoncourt’s.

In the end both Matt and Harnoncourt provide equally valid, is somewhat different experiences and I retain both on my shelves to play according to my mood.

Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra; LPO live 2009 [64:18] DDD
Lisa Milne (soprano)
Ruxandra Donose (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)

This performance is essentially an unsatisfactory amalgam; I refer you to John Sheppard’s review for more details, as I agree with every word. This is one of Vladimir Jurowski’s rare miscalculations; everything is too fast and perfunctory to a point at which some movements are almost comically rushed, yet the concluding Il terremoto plods. The soloists are not impressive; Lisa Milne has an obtrusive, warbling vibrato and Christopher Maltman is no bass or even a bass-baritone. The choir sounds distant and banal.

This presents no competition to the two preceding recordings in this category.


Whereas I found it relatively easy to make my choices for the most recommendable recording in the first, third and fourth categories here, for the second category, there are so many excellent recordings by the most renowned string quartets that I must throw my hands in the air and declare that I am reluctant to endorse any one over another. I merely indicate here my personal preferences, while maintaining that any one of half a dozen recordings above will satisfy. This was one of those pleasantly frustrating surveys whereby I found myself favouring whichever recording I happened to be auditioning at the moment – a nice problem to have.

1) Orchestral:
Modern – Muti 1991
Period – Savall 2006
2) String quartet:
Modern - Cuarteto Casals 2012*; Lindsay 1992; Borodin 1993; Talich 1995 – according to taste.
Period - Quatuor Mosaďques 1992
3) Piano: John McCabe 1977
4) Choral: Harnoncourt 1990

Overall first choice*

Ralph Moore
May 2022

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