HAYDN Seven Last Words of Christ of the Cross (Minasi)
One of Haydn’s oddest commissions came from a church in Cádiz for a sequence of orchestral ‘sonatas’ depicting each of the seven ‘words’ uttered by the crucified Christ. ‘It was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting 10 minutes each, and to have them succeed one another without fatiguing the listener’, wrote the composer. Such were his powers of invention by the mid-1780s, however, that the listener’s attention is gladly paid to this hour-plus of music marked largo, lento, grave and adagio; and, indeed, the Seven Last Words was soon performed throughout Europe and published in saleable arrangements for solo keyboard and for string quartet – the version in which it is most commonly heard. (A version with chorus, which is occasionally performed, dates from a decade or so later.)
In fact the original orchestral score comes out far less often than the solo and chamber versions, so this new recording from Ensemble Resonanz is doubly welcome. First, because of the chance it offers to relish this rarity from Haydn’s high maturity as a symphonist. Second, because of the finely nuanced performance it receives. The strings have a particular sparkle as captured within the stonework of a reasonably spacious Hamburg church, while the woodwind offer consoling balm: for example in the second sonata, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’, or singing descants over the ‘dry’ strings in the fifth, ‘I thirst’. The final ‘Il terremoto’ (‘Earthquake’) – marked Presto, con tutta la forza – at last releases the tension, like a summer storm, trumpets and timpani heard for the first time in the work.
Jordi Savall recorded the Words on period instruments in the very church in Cádiz for which it was written but Minasi’s reading scores for its greater tightness of ensemble and a richer sound, stemming from a slightly larger string section. Savall also includes brief Gospel readings (in Latin) between each sonata, a feature absent from the new recording. Reviewing the previous disc, Richard Wigmore remarked that the Seven Last Words should be in the collection of every Haydn lover. What better opportunity than this?