The great musical sequence Haydn composed to frame the Seven Last Words is a challenge to anyone performing it in this irreligious age.
Each of Christ's words was originally the text for a devotional discourse by a bishop who would then fall to his knees before the altar: in the intervals between utterances, there would be an atmospheric musical interlude. Haydn composed the work for a large orchestra in Cadiz; then he rearranged it for string quartet, as he wanted this majestic music to have the widest possible dissemination.
Lasting 70 minutes, it can stand on its own, but as each section is a slow adagio (apart from the concluding "earthquake") people feel obliged to jazz it up: sometimes with biblical readings, sometimes with poems, as Andrew Motion did, with predictably iffy results. But the Wigmore had a brainwave: as Gesualdo's "Responsoria" were also written for performance in Holy Week, and as both sequences were designed to be performed in sepulchrally blacked-out churches, what more natural than to interweave them? And, as the Hilliard were leaders in Gesualdo performance, why not enlist them? They and the Chilingirian would be each other's foil.
But the problem that arose when the singers opened their mouths was simply one of mismatch. Haydn was the perfect court composer, Gesualdo condemned by his X-rated misdeeds – publicly disembowelling his wife and murdering her lover – to take his musical pleasures in disgraced solitude. Both were daringly experimental for their time, but while Haydn's experimentalism had a poised Baroque grace, Gesualdo's wildly lurching chromaticism still sounds freaky today.
After the magnificent groundedness of Haydn's "Introduction", we plunged into very murky waters. The Hilliard's singing had none of the clarity that made their recording of this music so successful: the counter-tenors sounded strained, and the intonation at times so wayward as to seem almost unpitched. And so it went on: 10 minutes of chiaroscuro beauty followed by 10 minutes in which complex musical lines were smudged and clouded. Gesualdo would have had boy singers for the soprano parts, plus the benefit of a resonant church acoustic: this car-crash of a concert would have pleased neither him nor Haydn.Reuse content