Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross (CD review)

Jeno Jando, piano. Naxos 8.573313.

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross at the request of a priest to mark Good Friday, and Haydn published it in 1787. The title references the seven brief phrases spoken by Jesus on the cross, as the words appear in the four Gospels of the Bible. Along with an introduction and an "Earthquake" conclusion, they comprise nine movements, each slow, thoughtful, and reflective.

But here's the thing: Haydn wrote the music initially as a meditation for orchestra, for listeners to hear as the Bishop descended from the pulpit to pray. Later, Haydn arranged the piece for string quartet and then as an oratorio for chorus and orchestra. More important for our present considerations, however, he approved an arrangement for keyboard, which Hungarian pianist Jeno Jando plays here. Jando has had considerable experience with the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, having recorded all of the piano sonatas and many of the piano concertos of all three composers. His recording of The Seven Last Words does bear a certain stamp of authority.

The movements adhere to the following plan:

Introduzione in D minor - Maestoso ed adagio
Sonata I ("Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt" or "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do") - Largo
Sonata II ("Hodie mecum eris in paradiso" or "Today you will be in paradise") - Grave e cantabile
Sonata III ("Mulier, ecce filius tuus" or "Woman, behold your son") - Grave
Sonata IV ("Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me" or "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") - Largo
Sonata V ("Sitio" or "I thirst") - Adagio
Sonata VI ("Consummatum est" or "It is finished") - Lento
Sonata VII ("In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum" or "Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit") - Largo
Il terremoto ("The earthquake") - Presto e con tutta la forza

Now, I confess I am probably not the best person to judge Jando's performance because I have never heard the work done on piano; I have only heard the original orchestral version and the quartet arrangement, with a slight preference for the quartet sound. Moreover, by comparison to these other versions, Jando's interpretation and playing seem to me a tad more scholarly and a pinch less poignant. Nevertheless, I found Jando's handling of the piano version still has an abundance of charms.

Jeno Jando
The Seven Last Words is one of those pieces that is at once highly spiritual--mystical and uplifting--and popular, too. That is, it appeals to those of a Christian religious persuasion and equally to the general public regardless of religious bent. For this reason, Jando emphasizes both the mysterious, transcendent qualities of the music as well as its more tuneful, lyrical, melodic aspects.

Although Jando conveys an appropriately solemn tone, however, I still missed the warmer, lusher, more comforting sound of the orchestral and quartet versions of the piece. I suppose this is only natural for a person not used to the sparser, sparer sound of the single instrument. Yet even here, Jando uses the piano as well as possible to replicate the larger piece, especially in his treatment of contrasting tempos and dynamics, all the while communicating the music on a more-intimate scale.

As I say, Jando's manner may appear somewhat academic as opposed to more red-blooded; still, there is no question his playing is graceful and elegant, with phrases cleanly laid out and affectionately communicated. Yes, the orchestral version in particular strikes me as more dramatic than Jando's realization, but one might expect that from the larger forces involved. Let's just say that Jando's rendering of the work is illuminating--lighter and in some ways maybe more introspective than the bigger-scaled productions. It's certainly worth a listen.

Producer Ibolya Toth and engineer Janos Bohus recorded the music at Phoenix Studio, Diosd, Hungary in July 2013. The miking seems a little close, so we get an exceptionally clear piano sound; yet it's not so close as make the instrument appear ten or twelve feet wide. There is also a modest studio bloom that enhances the sound, making it resonantly rich and plush. Happily, perhaps because of the miking distance involved, the ambient room reverberation does not impart any undue softness to the sound, leaving it vibrant, full bodied, and pleasantly transparent.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

Mission Statement

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