Composers have always been wary of writing operas on the life of Christ; and Passion narratives aside, they haven’t exactly rushed to make it the basis for concert works either, since most of the standard oratorios take their texts from the Old Testament rather than the New.
But there are other options, and a singular example is Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, which sounds like a choral work but is in fact a purely instrumental one that responds emotionally to the sacred words rather than setting them. Haydn wrote it for full orchestra but it’s more often heard in a version for string quartet. And that’s how it was done at the Barbican by the Casals Quartet from Spain – who played superbly, with a chiselled clarity and noble eloquence.
But this aside, the lure of the performance was that between the movements came readings – not from the Bible but from Colm Tóibín’s novel, The Testament of Mary, which tells the Crucifixion story as remembered by the Blessed Virgin in old age. It’s not an orthodox account. But as delivered here with heartfelt anguish by Fiona Shaw (pictured), who played the Virgin as a baffled Irish woman trying to make sense of what had happened, it was mesmerising – with a force that made the Haydn sound like salon music by comparison – rococo, buttoned-up and tame, for all the efforts of the players.
Still more tame was a Festival Hall concert that had Sir Roger Norrington conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in two of the suites from Handel’s Water Music.
We can only guess what it was like on that legendary evening in 1717 when King George I – whose popularity had slumped – decided to make a show for his subjects and set off in a barge along the Thames, accompanied by 50 musicians, a flotilla of supporting boats, and eager crowds in small craft splashing alongside. But it would surely have been noisy and chaotic. And Handel’s music for the occasion was designed to be robust, or else it wouldn’t have been heard.
By contrast, Norrington’s performance was genteel and sleepy – not helped by the laid-back way that Norrington directed it, slouched in swivel chair like an executive after a hard day at his desk. I don’t say that it wasn’t nicely done: it was, but with no muscle on the bone.
And it was much the same in a semi-staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas that followed. With a fine chorus but unremarkable soloists, even Dido’s great lament made no impression. If you can’t reduce your audience to tears with that, you’ve lost the game.