While pandemic restrictions are gradually lifting – venues in Sydney are back to full capacity from Monday – this Easter won’t feature the large-scale Messiahs that so often fill concert halls and choir stalls at this time of year. Instead, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has chosen a more intimate Easter program: Haydn’s Seven Last Words of our Redeemer from the Cross Hob.XX/1, in a performance by a stripped back SSO led by Concertmaster Andrew Haveron.
Haydn wrote this music in 1786 for a Good Friday service at a cathedral in Cádiz in Spain. As Haydn himself described it, the music was to fill the intervals between the Bishop’s recitation of each of the seven ‘words’ – short passages describing scenes of Christ on the cross – which the Bishop would expound on before leaving the pulpit to prostrate himself on the altar. “It was no easy task to compose seven Adagios lasting 10 minutes each and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners,” Haydn wrote.
From the stern opening gestures of the introduction (the strings rich and authoritative under Haveron’s command), Haydn deftly charts a range of moods across the seven ‘words’. The first movement, on the words “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” – recited in this performance by the SSO’s Principal Trombone Ronald Prussing – is almost sunny in its lyricism, though the pulsing of the lower strings hint at something more painful, while the second movement, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”, alternates between sighing figures and a pastoral optimism. Solo flute (Emma Sholl) brought a sweetness to “Mother, behold your son” before the strings cried out in “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Haveron drawing a keening intensity from the tuttis against the fragility of his own spidering solo lines. There was a gentleness, then, in the pizzicato strings of “I thirst” before the solemnity of “It is finished” – both tragic and regal. The final movement, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” also embraces both grief and triumph, a restrained fanfare from the horns, an optimistic violin solo from Haveron.
While Haydn does an assured job of capturing the various moods, repeating sections in the various movements and the nature of the commission – essentially to accompany spiritual reflection or meditation – lends the work a feeling of stasis at times. This is a slower burn than what you might expect having listened to Haydn’s symphonies (in some ways Seven Last Words is just a symphony made up exclusively of slow movements). But if any listeners were beginning to feel fatigued, the thundercrack of the final epilogue – Il terremoto, or ‘the earthquake’ – had them sitting bolt upright. Trumpeters and timpanist, who until then were sitting on the hands, sprang to life amidst a fierce lashing of strings, Haydn ensuring no one was leaving without a good dose of drama.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Jesus on the Cross – alongside music by Barber, Gabrieli, Lauridsen – on 27 March