on 3 February 2004
This is surely one of Haydn’s most moving and contemplative works and this recording by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt is about the finest I have ever heard. It highlights the meaning of the music, allowing us to meditate on the final words of Christ on the cross, accompanied only by Haydn’s wonderful music.
The soloists are impeccable in every respect. One exquisite moment is the entry of Anthony Rolfe-Johnson at the start of “Jesus rufet, Ach, mich dürstet” – the pizzicato is barely audible, delicately suspending his plaintive cry as if he were hanging by but a thread.
The orchestral playing is of the highest standard too, persuasive but never intruding on the sombre mood of the piece.
The recording and presentation of the CD are both excellent and the acoustics of the Casino Zögernitz are also good.
Whether you know this piece or listening to it for the first time I am sure you will not be disappointed by this recording.
Reading a decidedly lukewarm review of this recording by a reviewer whose opinions I often read and respect sent me back to it for another listen as I had always enjoyed it very much and was rather surprised by his objections.
In the end it is a question of one's taste and response to the scale and overt emotionality of Harnoncourt's interpretation. The reviewer's preferred version by Nicol Matt, available cheaply on Brilliant, is on the face of it similar in that it uses the oratorio version with four soloists, a choir and an orchestra. I enjoy this wonderfully profound music in any of its incarnations, from the solo keyboard arrangement, through string quartet, to full orchestra, to the one we have here and they all enjoyed Haydn's approval.
There is no doubt that Harnoncourt sets out to give us an unabashedly "Romantic" account, leaning heavily on accents and emphasising the suffering behind the text whereas the Stemra disc with Matt conducting is a much more restrained, some would say refined, and redolent of a smaller-scale enterprise with a more intimate acoustic and a somewhat more claustrophobic atmosphere. While Matt's soloists may be "unknowns" they are very good, even if the bass is rather growly compared with Robert Holl's more rotund tones for Harnoncourt and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson's plaintive and intrinsically lovely tenor is clearly a superior instrument to Matt's pleasing but more ordinary singer; his use of the messa di voce is especially moving. While the Nordic Chamber Choir is indeed fine, the Arnold Schoenberg Chamber Choir is a world-class outfit. Both orchestras are admirable.
In a more purist frame of mind I like the Matt version very much but I also respond to Harnoncourt's intensity; he brings out the excoriating physical cruelty of the crucifixion by daring to underline the music as if it were a cry of pain; conversely he finds a serenity in the interludes depicting the paradise which awaits. The size of orchestra also allows him to give proper weight to the "terremoto" conclusion.
In the end, I shall continue to live with and enjoy both versions, even if my instinct leans towards Harnoncourt while my intellect admires the poise and clarity of the Matt recording.