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GRAMOPHONE (12/2007)
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Alia Vox
AVSA 9854

Code-barres/Barcode: 7619986398549


Reviewer: Richard Wigmore


It is ironic that the original orchestral version of the Seven Last Words - one of Haydn's greatest and, in his lifetime, most popular works - should have been almost completely eclipsed by the composer's makeshift string quartet arrangement. Whatever the gains in intimacy, the quartet version inevitably mutes the grandeur, colour and mystic awe of the original; its sheer physical power, too, above all in the final Earthquake, which tends to emerge as merely frantic when played by a quartet.

This rare recording of the orchestral Words, interspersed with brief Gospel readings (in Latin), was made in the same church in Cadiz (Santa Cueva) for which Haydn composed the work in 1786. Its acoustic, spacious yet not overly cavernous, is very apt for this music. Though his period orchestra, based on a string section of 16, is smaller than I find ideal, Jordi Savall directs a good, straightforward performance, carefully balanced, and minutely attentive to the composer's markings, not least the disruptive sforzando accents that pepper the score. The Earthquake, complete with gunfire timpani and screeching, snarling valveless brass, is properly convulsive.

For my taste, Savall's tempi for No 5, "I thirst", with its contorted lines and excruciating dissonances, and the consolatory No 7 are a notch too fast for them to make their full, moving effect: in the latter, Haydn's delicate, musing violin writing tends to sound faintly frisky . Here and elsewhere, too, I would have welcomed a touch more tenderness and flexibility in the phrasing, especially when approaching the interrupted cadences that are such a feature of this music. Still, without quite probing its extremes of anguish and compassion, Savall and his skilled forces do fair justice to a sublime work that should be in the collection of every Haydn lover.

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