MUSIC / Cross words: Nicholas Williams on two celebrations of Easter

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The Independent Culture
Not much was said about music by the Man of Nazareth, who let Saints Paul and Augustine guess his thoughts on this and other matters. Even so, the archetypal play of his life has given rich subject-matter to composers, whether in the triumph of the Mass, or the gloom of the Passions and the 'Stabat Mater'.

Good Friday offered the chance to hear two further examples: responses to the Seven Last Words from the Cross. At the Purcell Room the Parnassus Ensemble gave the string orchestra version of Haydn's instrumental meditations on these texts. Later that evening, Radio 3 broadcast James MacMillan's new choral setting of the same passages.

The Parnassus concert included secular devotions as well, with performances of Mozart's Adagio and Fugue and Mendelssohn's early Symphony No 9 for strings. The group made heavy going of the Mozart; the lower strings were no concord of sweet sounds. But Mendelssohn's verve and caprice revived the ensemble; they were soon tracking at a moment's notice between impish accompaniments and earnest student writing. Under the lively direction of Peter Sheppard, the finale, a study in delayed expectation, almost equalled the composer's mature style.

And by the second half cellos and bass had settled their differences. In addition, violas and violins had found a lustrous euphony that gave resonance to Haydn's unique series of seven adagio movements.

With the exception of the last number, depicting the rending of the temple veil, nothing in this work was scenic. For Haydn, the abstract play of melody and harmony was clearly sufficient cause for meditation on the gospel exclamations. Yet for a post-modern audience, interest also focused on the mysterious codes by which the composer grasped the transcendental. Did the rapt concentration of the players, for example, offer a kind of mantra, giving insight? Or was the very perfection of the music meant as sufficient image of the divine to encourage higher contemplation?

MacMillan must also have considered such questions in composing his own Seven Last Words, though he chose a different route to the texts. Perhaps this arose from the work's origins as brief TV slots relayed during Holy Week, with Cappella Nova, partnered by the BT Scottish Ensemble, singing and acting out the Crucifixion roles. Putting the sequence together, Friday night's performance revealed a work strong on inclusiveness of faith and the impact of bold musical statements.

Partly, each inspired the other. In the first movement, plainsong lines grew into arches of sound; in the second, silence was broken by snatches of Bach chorales, with Russian Orthodox chants in the third. This was a considered response to the words, rising to an anguished peak of lament before the hushed imploration of 'Why has thou forsaken me?'

Compared with Haydn's manners, MacMillan's world was one of urgent images and response. Yet there were points in common. Whatever its forms of higher devotion, music also speaks at a basic level of painting in sound. And in the whispered entreaties of 'I thirst', and the repeated chords - like hammer-blows - that followed, there was something universal and pictorial that Haydn, too, would surely have understood.