Vladimir Jurowski / London Philharmonic Orchestra

Haydn: The Seven Last Words Of Our Saviour On The Cross

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Haydn: The Seven Last Words Of Our Saviour On The Cross Review

by James Manheim

Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross had a complicated history. It was written as an instrumental work for a small orchestra at a cathedral in Spain, made up of seven slow sonata-form movements, plus a concluding "earthquake," to be used as interludes in an Easter service. Haydn later arranged the work for string quartet, perhaps the preferable version if the work is to be heard from beginning to end. Later, another composer scored it anew with an added Passion text of his own devising, creating a kind of oratorio; Haydn, dissatisfied with this version on hearing it, reworked it yet again and added an instrumental introduction and a quite striking central interlude for winds and brasses, as well as unmetered settings of a relevant biblical passage for the choir at the beginning of each movement. Not content with any of these choices, London Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Vladimir Jurowski has created yet another hybrid. It is basically the choral version that is on offer in this live recording, but Jurowski, feeling that "the text is in ... opposition to the universality and breadth of expression of the music," adds an instrumental statement to the beginning of the last six of the seven main movements, coming after the choral opening. Presumably the first "word," Vater, vergib ihnen, denn sie wissen nicht, was sie tun (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do), is spared this treatment because the introduction, if the instrumental section were added, would seem to sit alone in a sea of instrumental music. Regardless of one's philosophical position toward Jurowski's move, it doesn't make a lot of musical sense. Haydn struggled with this unusual commission and created a uniquely concentrated set of musical thoughts; the concentration is broken by Jurowski's expansion of the music. It doesn't make much philosophical sense, either; if Jurowski wanted to perform a textless version of the work, the original orchestral version was available to him. There's nothing wrong with the performance, which is elegantly restrained and nicely integrated with the efforts of the London Philharmonic Choir and a strong quartet of soloists, and the live sound, as usual with the LPO's own recordings, is excellent. But it's hard to fathom just what Jurowski wanted to accomplish here.

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