Ever faithful and religious, Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) wrote his 7 Last Words of Christ Our Savior on the Cross to express Mother Mary's wail at seeing her son slain for the sins of humanity. Haydn wrote the original orchestral score in 1786 on a Good Friday commission, then authorized a miniaturized string quartet version in a year later and, after hearing it played with voices, premiered his own oratorio version in 1796.
Performers and conductors have done a lot with the various scores over the years but this is the first time I can recall someone tried to incorporate parts of the oratorio with the orchestral version, which is the case here. Some years back, Sony released a version with string quartet and a quartet of soloists that either sung or recited lines between the string quartet parts. That was an oddball production and the one at hand has the same characteristic of being neither fish nor fowl.
The 7 Last Words are not the easiest pieces of music to pull off because Haydn wrote an adagio introduction followed by six slow movements marked adagio (slow and stately), largo (large), lento (slowly) and grave (slow and solemn). In this construct, a director is handcuffed by a lot of slow music and having to maintain interest without speed or otherwise jazzing up.
Under Vladimir Jurowski, there are multiple problems. First is his individual take on the music where the choir sings part of the time and, the rest of the time, the orchestra takes the lead. I'm not sure Papa Haydn ever sanctioned a version like this -- a full orchestra version with an intermittent choir telling us part of Mary's problem. I can tell you this is a first for me and I am not enamored with it.
The larger problems are slack playing, poor tempo choices, and generally nonchalant approach by Jurowski, the orchestra and singers. While he is aided by some fine soloists, I found a noticeable lack of spirituality right from the opening adagio, played here more like andante -- at a walking pace. The choir's elocution is not always very good, also.
The one place where Jurowksi and forces seem one in kind is the finale, the Il terremoto presto in C minor meant to re-enact the 3 p.m. earthquake God sent the world on Good Friday to express his wrath knowing his son was dead. Here is passion and grit that closes the piece monumentally, living up to the promise of Haydn's score. Unfortunately, the thing is over once the earthquake takes place and we are left with a bland performance with a good ending.
I'm no fan of the purely orchestral or string quartet versions of the 7 Last Words and have heard most of the oratorio versions. For me, the best bet is one of those directed by Frieder Bernius or Nicol Matt. Either will give more satisfaction than this betwixt and between version and both are performed with greater spirituality and attention to minute detail than the Jurowski, which seems to miss the point altogether.