Haydn’s odd instrumental work, The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross ended up in essentially three versions over a fifteen year period right up to the time of his death. The first, recorded here, is for purely orchestral forces. Another smaller version was made by the composer for string quartet and is known today as his Opus 51. And someone else made a choral arrangement – one that Haydn liked – which turned into its final version with chorus and orchestra.
But it is the version heard here, commissioned by a canon of the southern Iberian city of Cadiz that remains the purest expression of this remarkable music. It was no easy challenge, as the composer himself realized, to make seven slow movements of about ten minutes each without losing the interest of everyone in the church. He certainly did not want to be boring. The way this work was given is thus: the opening Maestoso et Adagio was given, followed by the recitation of the specific words pertinent to the work, and a meditation by the bishop. He then went and prostrated himself before the altar while Haydn’s music was played. It went thusly until the last word was performed, followed by Haydn’s stirring conclusion, the only fast music in the piece.
Jordi Savall’s forces play this music with conviction and passion, perhaps not the shapeliest period performance in the world, but certainly persuasive and moving. The recording is up to the usual high standards we hear from this source. One thing that Savall has opted to do is to commission himself a couple of noted humanists and philosophers, Raimon Panikkar and Jose Saramago, to write their own meditations on Christ’s seven last “words”, and some of this is recorded between the movements. I find the texts profoundly anti-Christian (that’s my problem) but more importantly, Haydn would certainly have been disgusted by them, and that is more to the point. Haydn was a man of profound traditional faith and was writing a work specifically as a demonstration of that faith, and to insert some ideas contrary to his own feelings in the midst of one of his most personal works seems to me rather mischievous and disingenuous. This won’t keep me from listening to this disc frequently for the fine performance, but it is certainly a consideration for those who understand Spanish. [I don’t recall if the spoken parts are on separate tracks so they can be programmed out in playback; if not, this is a serious fault…Ed.]
— Steven Ritter