Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Andras Schiff, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It's time to own up: about 40 years ago, as a music undergraduate at Durham University, I stole an LP from the library.

It's time to own up: about 40 years ago, as a music undergraduate at Durham University, I stole an LP from the library. Theft is not my game, but Haydn's Seven Last Words of our Saviour from the Cross was a sublime discovery. While the Bach Passions dominate music-making at Easter, it is Haydn who perhaps wrote the most touching contribution to the gravest of events in the Christian calendar.

The origins of the work are unusual: Haydn was commissioned by a churchman of Cadiz to write a series of slow movements to be played between each of the Seven Words uttered by Christ, as intoned by the bishop, the performance to take place in a cave. Haydn realised that the task of writing seven adagios would be no easy matter if listeners were not to be bored. "Indeed, soon I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits..."

An Introduction and a final movement of astonishing contrast surround the Seven Last Words. Haydn didn't set out to contribute descriptive music: "Each text is expressed by purely instrumental music in such a fashion that it should produce the deepest impression on the most uninstructed listener," he wrote. Haydn was very fond of this work, and a number of other versions exist: for string quartet; as a vocal oratorio; even for keyboard (approved, but not composed, by Haydn).

Andras Schiff and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe made an utterly convincing case for the orchestral version, albeit chamber in size. Monotony is a risk, but not in a performance such as this. Schiff chose to omit a reading of Christ's utterances, instead offering lengthy breaks between movements for the texts' meaning to be absorbed. It felt like a newly cleaned painting, Schiff giving such attention to detail, so tender, so reverential, humbly bringing this miraculous score to life.

The COE is an astonishing ensemble, arguably the Rolls-Royce of chamber orchestras. Their range of colour is awesome, from seamless strings, shaded with and without vibrato, to valveless trumpets and hard-hitting timpani. Individual pride of place must go to the oboist François Leleux, whose playing was music-making at its most beautiful and intelligent. Haydn's tumultuous final movement was met by enthusiastic applause, but Schiff took time to acknowledge it - applause seemed unfitting to such devotional work.

Haydn's Seven Last Words was preceded in the first half by a wonderfully rumbustious performance of his 82nd Symphony, the "Bear". Schiff drove the tempos hard, belying any notion of Papa Haydn gentility. But in Haydn's D major concerto for keyboard, in which Schiff was both soloist and conductor, he splendidly embraced the impish humour of the piece, playing deadpan while rattling away in breathtakingly even passage work. Even the outsized Steinway seemed to smile.