Haydn: Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross (CD review)

Cantata for voices and orchestra, with Sandrine Piau, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, mezzo-soprano; Robert Getchell, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Accentus; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Laurence Equilbey. Naive V5045.

Many classical-music fans know that Haydn composed The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross first for orchestra, then for quartet, and later authorized a keyboard transcription. What people may not know is that he also arranged the piece as a cantata for voices and orchestra.

But it came about almost by accident. The idea never occurred to him to add voices until he was returning home from his second trip to England in 1795 and stopped off at the Bavarian town of Passau, where he coincidently heard a vocal-orchestral version of his work arranged by the local Kapellmeister, Joseph Friebert. There were no copyright laws back then, so I guess Friebert could do whatever he wanted with Haydn's music. The new arrangement impressed Haydn, although he thought he could do even better himself. And he did, in the version we hear on this disc, a version premiered in 1796.

According to the booklet note, Haydn rearranged several of the orchestral parts, added several more introductions, including a fairly lengthy one between the Fourth and Fifth Words, and then used mostly the Kapellmeister's sung text for the vocals.

The result is different, to say the least, and if anything sounds more spiritual than ever, especially in this recording with the Accentus Choir and the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. It can also be a little easier to sit through, the vocal parts adding a bit more variety to the movements. Haydn had written about his original composition that "The task of writing seven successive adagios, each of them to last around ten minutes, without wearying the listener, was by no means an easy one." For this vocal-orchestral arrangement, the composer has less chance of "wearying" anybody.

Naive's recording of the soloists, the choir Accentus, and the Akademie under the direction of Laurence Equilbey is quite good. Never too forward, never too dull or reserved, the sound is quite natural and transparent, the singers well integrated into the aural setting. It's all rather beautiful, actually, and the disc makes a perfect addition to one's Haydn music library, complementing renditions for orchestra and quartet alone.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa