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Savall's Latest Word on the Seven Last Words

available at Amazon
Haydn, Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze, Le Concert des Nations, J. Savall

(released on October 13, 2009)
Alia Vox AVDVD 9868
You likely know Haydn's setting of The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross from the oratorio and string quartet versions. Haydn composed the original score, seven movements with an introduction and a concluding Terremoto, in 1786 to 1787, for orchestra. It was a commission from Spain, where his music was known and popular, for a very solemn Good Friday service in the Oratorio of Santa Cueva in Cádiz. Haydn later spoke to Georg Griesinger about what he remembered of the details of the commission. The church was darkened, all of the statues and altars covered in black cloth, with a single lamp in the center: the bishop ascended to the pulpit, pronounced one of the seven words, and gave a meditation about its meaning. The seven orchestral sonatas were played as he came down from the pulpit and prostrated himself before the main altar, a musical reflection on the homiletic meditation.

This is Jordi Savall's second recording of the work (there are several other options, including by HIP ensembles), made in the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz where the premiere took place (the CD version was already released two years ago). The performance is gorgeous: solemn, expansive, the sound captured in a way that preserves some (perhaps too much) of the place's cavernous acoustic, with rich strings and excellent playing on historical instruments most noticeable with the winds and brass. Savall made an attempt (unsuccessful) to recreate the original circumstances, by including a voice-over with the seven words read in Latin, and two sets of reflections on the seven words that can be played in a separate set of tracks, unfortunately without subtitles available, or read in the booklet. It is too bad that the work could not have been recorded with a priest's actual reflections on the seven words pronounced in the space as they were at the premiere: the reflections included here are not all that traditional (one of them would be considered downright heretical by Catholic theologians). So, this is unfortunately not so much a recreation as it is a modern adaptation.

With the church darkened, although the statues are not covered with black cloth, there is not much for the video to show, and some stock footage of Holy Week processions, in slow motion, is added as a diversion. The images of these very pious enactments, with statues and candles carried by members of confraternities (their hoods, of white and other colors, having a rather different visual connotation for American viewers), are a reminder of the secular bent of the reflections offered here. The idea that The Seven Last Words are some sort of humanistic work is silly: produced at the same time as the Paris symphonies, truly secular music, the Words were intended for church performance in one of the most Catholic countries at the time. Haydn's autograph score, likely sent to Spain to fulfill the commission, has been lost, but even though the orchestral sonatas did not use voices, Haydn's initial melody in each movement sets the corresponding Latin text, as if for a voice. Haydn had these texts printed under the first violin part at the start of each movement (they are printed together as an example in Daniel Heartz's Mozart, Haydn and Early Beethoven: 1781-1802). The effect is of vocal music transposed to instruments.



jfl said...

As you say, the video may be crummy, but the performance is top notch. In my overview of the 7 Last Words' different versions (here), I found it the most satisfying. Although in retrospect, and after hearing way too many different performances and versions, I think it's quite a boring work, really.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that link, Jens. I thought I had read one of your overview posts on this piece, but I couldn't locate it.

What you say about the piece being boring goes to the heart of my criticism of Savall's version. I think to appreciate the work as Haydn intended it, you should probably have the liturgical setting, the darkened church, the shrouded statues, AND the reflections that the music is meant to follow and accompany. Hearing it only as a work of instrumental music misses the point. Not that it cannot be enjoyed as such, but that by losing part of its meaning, it might become just that, boring.

jfl said...

I wish I could take credit for it, but it's not my line but the response to the above-linked Haydn-piece:

"I'm sure God will forgive you for promoting one of Haydn's most boring pieces, clearly intended to drive people away from Christianity."

Even if I don't feel *quite* as severe about the 7LW, after that, I stopped pretending to myself that it must be great because it's Haydn... :-)

I am interested in hearing how the piece works with the modern compositions that join the 8 movements in Brueggen's new recordings.