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Franz Joseph Haydn: Les Sept Dernières Paroles du Christ
18 Feb 2007

HAYDN: Les Sept Dernières Paroles du Christ

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words is well known, both as a familiar part of modern Lenten devotions and also as something of a stylistic oddity, I suspect.

Franz Joseph Haydn: Les Sept Dernières Paroles du Christ

Accentus; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; Sandrine Piau, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, mezzo-soprano; Robert Getchell, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Lauarence Equilbey (conductor)

Naïve V5045 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

Devotional instrumental music, save that for the associatively “consecrated” organ, leaves us somewhat confused, as the expectations of genre begin to blur. Haydn conceived of the Seven Last Words as an orchestral work in 1786—music to be performed in the context of Holy Week as contemplative reflections on Jesus’s Passion. Strikingly, of course, these Seven Last Words had no words at all, as was also the case with his string quartet arrangement, thus subverting the long-conditioned notion that devotional music is both sung and texted. (It is not only the absence of voice and text that challenges the sense of genre; certain idioms, such as the “horn-fifths” at the beginning of the seventh word seem so rich in association that it is difficult to reconcile their bucolicism with Calvary.)

“Long-conditioned notions” inspired a vocal version of Haydn’s work by the Passau Kapellmeister, Joseph Friebert. Haydn heard this version in 1795 and set about to render it with his own stamp. In this new version, soloists and choir are added to the instrumental landscape, singing texts that expand and reflect on Jesus’s words from the cross, much in the manner of eighteenth-century opera, where poetic arias reflect and expand on recitative. And to make this reflective dynamic more explicit, Haydn also adds unaccompanied statements of the words from the cross themselves—in function like a recitative—sung before the reflections in turn. In one instance, however, he foregoes this pattern and replaces the word from the cross with a new instrumental movement for winds.

The conductor, Laurence Equilbey, in the program notes writes of the vocal version as being like colla parte in reverse. That is, whereas normative liturgical practice often found instruments doubling the voices for support and for timbral enrichment, in this case it is the voices that double the instruments. They enrich the tone color, their addition of text particularizes the moment, but unlike music conceived for orchestra and choir, the role of who accompanies whom is seemingly up for grabs: the presence of voices leads one to expect that, as usual, they are in “first chair,” but the genesis of the version and the sound itself bring that into question.

Much of the most powerful writing remains reserved for instruments alone: the opening introduction, with wonderfully incisive sonorities enhanced here by period instruments is one example, and the movement that precedes the fifth reflection is another. This is moodily evocative, eerie and unsettling, and the scoring for winds alone (including Haydn’s first use of contrabassoon) places the movement in high relief.

Choir and orchestra alike follow Equilbey’s strong dynamic sense, rendering highly contoured lines that move compellingly from theatricality to contemplation. Moreover, the utterly simple writing of the unaccompanied “words” shows the choir’s striking degree of control and infection. The work itself may blur our sense of genre, but there is no lack of clarity regarding the strength of the performance.

Steven Plank

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