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Haydn seven last words HDTT6824

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
The Seven Last Words of Christ (Die Sieben Worte des Erlösers am Kreuz)
Vienna Academy Chorus
Eunice Alberts (contralto)
Otto Wiener (bass)
Ina Dressel, Virginia Babikian (sopranos)
John Van Kesteren (tenor)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen
rec. 1962

My regular readers will know that I recently posted a survey of this work. This particular recording was not included in the choral section of that conspectus, but I would not in any case have done so even if I had been aware of its existence. I am normally an admirer of Hermann Scherchen and have in my recent reviews been almost uniformly complimentary about the contents of the HDTT catalogue but this choral version of Haydn’s masterpiece is an unmitigated disaster. Everything about it is “old-fashioned” in the worst sense.

First, despite HDTT’s best efforts, the sound is ploggy, saturated and bass-heavy and the playing is oddly erratic, with staccato tempi in the opening movement which are most off-putting. Rather than imbuing the music with any sense of drama, Scherchen’s jumpy, nervy phrasing, sustained throughout, robs it of all repose. A twittery, muffled choir are encouraged by him to yell their words at a most undignified pace in the first “Father forgive them” Largo movement and matters never improve.

The soloists are somewhat better but the team is compromised by the nasal bass of Otto Wiener whose Herald constitutes the only blot on Rudolf Kempe’s otherwise ideal Lohengrin. The soprano soloist is twittery and vibrato-laden, the contralto is fruity and van Kesteren’s tenor is far too falsetto biased. They are not helped by Scherchen’s determination to press so hard on tempi that the listener gets the impression that he wants to erase any sense of gravitas. The orchestral accompaniment to the second movement (Verily, I Say unto Thee) is absurdly perky. The solo violin in the fourth movement “My God, my God” is consistently horribly out of tune. The Intermezzo fares much better but is still earthbound, with a sonority oddly more reminiscent of the priestly music in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte than Haydn’s devotional intent. “Il terremoto” is again very bass-biased with blaring brass drowning out the choir and emerging as rather more comical than stirring.

Given the generally stellar quality of HDTT’s remasterings, I am surprised that they have seen fit to include this dinosaur in their catalogue. If you want a choral version of this work, I recommend Harnoncourt’s 1990 recording; this simply will not do.

Ralph Moore

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