OAE/Harding – 15 April

Symphony No.49 in F minor (La Passione)
Die Sieben letzen Worte unseren Erlösers am Kreuze

Joanne Lunn (soprano)
Wilke te Brummelstroete (mezzo-soprano)
Julian Podger (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 April, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Six years before the bi-centenary of the death of Haydn, and the South Bank is already setting the pace with its series of concerts covering almost all aspects of his work. While the number of ’unknown’ Haydn pieces may now be relatively small, those ’little known’ amount to a substantial part of his output – taking in many contributions to orchestral, instrumental, operatic and choral genres.

Indeed, while the orchestral and string quartet versions of Seven Last Words are heard regularly at Easter, the choral version rarely gets an airing. Composed in 1795 (eight years after the work as originally completed in orchestral guise), it affects all levels of the music. In an unwitting ’dry run’ for the oratorio texts he was to compile, Gottfried van Swieten assembled a text that conveys the character of each ’word’ by articulating its form and defining its sentiment. Haydn responded with a choral epigraph for each movement (except No.5), and introduced the ceremonial sound of clarinets and trombones into an orchestra where flutes and bassoons had previously a minimal impact. The result is unconventional but overtly devotional: a sequel – aesthetically at least – to the Stabat Mater from a couple of decades before.

With its dynamic overall key scheme and thoughtful contrasts in mood and pacing, the sequence of slow movements is anything but repetitive. A keen intensity emerges over its near hour-long course, before the visceral ’Earthquake’ presto shatters the surface tension with a fury seemingly out of keeping with the Enlightenment poise of which Haydn was the acknowledged master. The Introduction sets the scene with Masonic solemnity, while the extraordinary interlude between the fifth and sixth features double bassoon (looking literal in its authentic incarnation) with an elegy which intriguingly anticipates the Revolutionary music of Cherubini and Le Sueur.

The performance was a committed one. The four soloists, placed at the centre-front of the chorus behind the orchestra, blended superbly in timbre and temperament (Julian Podger taking the solo writing in the fifth movement with lilting plangency), while Clare College Choir projected the often intricate choral textures securely and eloquently. Orchestral balance had the fullness of the OAE (never among the more hair-shirted ’authentic’ practitioners) at its best. Any assumption that this version of Seven Last Words was en expedient afterthought on Haydn’s part was totally disproven.

Making his debut with the orchestra, Daniel Harding shaded detail and controlled long-term harmonic tension with unobtrusive rightness. Earlier, he seemed tentative in the 49th Symphony (1768) – making little of the textural contrasts in the opening baleful ’Adagio’ and remaining in neutral throughout the musingly intense Minuet, though the even-numbered movements had the required fraught energy. What was undeniable was the choreography inherent in his conducting – surely over-emphatic in terms of realising the interpretation. As Richard Wigmore pointed out in the programme note, the ’Sturm und Drang’ (Storm and Stress) movement in the literary arts lay several years hence – giving Harding’s approach an inauthentic as well as intermittently distracting feel.

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