Seven Last Words [Haydn & MacMillan]

The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross
Seven Last Words from the Cross

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Renata Pokupić (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor) & Darren Jeffery (bass-baritone)

BBC Singers

Manchester Camerata
Douglas Boyd

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 20 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Those who stayed on at the Royal Albert Hall for the late-night Prom which followed Bernard Haitink’s monumental Mahler 9 were rewarded with as complementary and enriching a musical experience as could be desired. The devotional solemnity, classical grace and uplifting serenity of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross” suited the occasion perfectly. And, while the string quartet arrangement may carry more concentrated intensity, Haydn’s choral version felt just right here. The richness of the orchestration, sumptuous choral writing and sublime vocal solos all blended beautifully in the vast Albert Hall melting pot into a surprisingly intimate and enthralling affair under the dedication of conductor Douglas Boyd.

Boyd’s penetrative direction got right to the heart of the work, offering an aching, yearning account that avoided any hint of overbearing heaviness with agile forward momentum and deft ebb and flow. Manchester Camerata provided idiomatic and responsive playing. The dark-hued timbre conjured for the ‘Introduction to Part One’ was immediately captivating; the wind-band ‘Prelude to Part Two’, with its bleak trombone solos, undulating motifs and dissonant suspensions was grippingly poised, enriched by resonant contrabassoon.

Elizabeth Watts. Photograph: Mike OwenThe excellent soloists worked well as a team, and made the most of their brief moments in the spotlight – Andrew Kennedy’s ethereally floating solo over a gentle pizzicato accompaniment in the ‘Fifth Word’ was especially moving. The clarity of the solo voices offered an effective contrast with the muscular tones of the BBC Singers. If the sopranos in particular sometimes lacked definition, overall the ensemble was superb, the choral-singing sensitive and stylish.

The only instance of muddied detail – in the dramatic earthquake coda – could be blamed jointly on Haydn (this passage might, arguably, have had more impact if it had been left to the orchestra alone; the sustained chorus blasts blur the furious instrumental lines) and the idiosyncratic Albert Hall acoustic as experienced. But Boyd and Company delivered the conclusion with attack and drive, rounding off an hour of passionate, sublime and – most importantly in this context – cathartic music.

For those whose evening had started three-and-a-half hours earlier with Mahler’s Ninth, the prospect of even more music may have seemed unnecessary or undesirable; the Haydn alone would have formed a perfectly satisfying late-night concert. Some of the already-decimated audience did indeed leave at this point, while the concentration of those who remained continued unabated with a mesmerising performance of James MacMillan’s 1994 take on the Seven Last Words.

Austerely scored for just strings and choir, the work’s often-searing intensity created an atmosphere of even greater intimacy. Boyd’s immense commitment conjured a performance of astonishing power, beauty and emotional engagement from the radiant Manchester Camerata strings and the BBC Singers (with strong solo contributions coming from the ranks). Some of MacMillan’s grittier passages are tough-going, but – given the subject matter – are doubtless meant to be. Boyd made the most of the score’s contrasts, from shimmering lyricism, eerie Latin chants, harsh angular motifs and trance-inducing repetition, leading to a tranquil and poignant postlude.

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