This Lenten concert at Vienna's Konzerthaus was certainly solemn and atmospheric. The auditorium was shrouded in darkness from beginning to end, with the only lights emanating from a row of candles placed at the front of the stage and the lights on the music stands. Their Portrait Artist Teodor Currentzis’s decision to perform this concert in darkness may well have stemmed from the work in the first half of the programme, namely Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross. This work was commissioned by the canon of Cádiz Cathedral, where it was customary to perform an oratorio every year during Lent in darkness. As Haydn himself explained: “The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness.” The solemnity of this concert was further enhanced by the musicians’ unusual attire – long, black gowns rather like the costume of a Russian Orthodox choir.

Teodor Currentzis © Anton Zavyalov
Teodor Currentzis
© Anton Zavyalov

Haydn’s work exists in many versions, but here it was performed in the string orchestra version, the string quartet version played with multiple players (for example, ten first violins), and with the addition of continuo fortepiano, which was only intermittently audible. The form is unusual – it comprises of seven slow “sonatas” (with an introduction and epilogue), each a musical meditation on the seven words of Christ on the cross. I felt that if they were going to perform in the dark, it would have been even more effective if there had been a reading of the original Latin texts that precedes each movement.

Currentzis’s conducting was intense and energetic, and watching the way he micromanages each phrase with eloquent gestures is quite hypnotic even as an audience, so it’s no surprise that the players were absolutely receptive to his every tiny gesture. Yet, I felt that overall his interpretation of each movement was more general and abstract, rather than trying to depict the underlying religious Affekt of each piece in a more rhetorical style. Still, he created some breathtaking musical moments, such as the stillness in Sonata III followed by the profound darkness in Sonata IV, and the strikingly dramatic “Il terremoto” (earthquake) epilogue.

The strings of MusicAeterna, who played standing up in the Haydn (except for the cellos, who were on raisers), have an unforced, sonorous and homogenous sound and the group played as one. Tall and lanky Currentzis didn’t use a podium and he waved his arms energetically (no baton), danced about, and breathed together with the players: he looked almost like a religious guru (a benign guru, I hasten to add). Above all, he encouraged the players to play with fluidity and expressivity. The players performed in a period-performance style with light and airy sound with little vibrato, but it’s a fuller sound than most period band on gut strings – I’m not sure whether everyone was playing on gut strings on this occasion, although the cellos were playing without endpins. To me, their playing sounded like a hybrid between modern and period styles.

In the second half, another popular Lenten work, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was performed, also in darkness. Currentzis and MusicAeterna strings (now with organ/harpsichord continuo) were joined by two exceptional soloists: Catalan soprano Nuria Rial and Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy, who stood side by side throughout the work, even when one was not singing. Rial’s light and pure voice soared effortlessly in Cuius animam and her sotto voce at the end of Vidit suum was spine-tinglingly beautiful. Murrihy’s voice was warm yet agile in the lively dance-like Eia, mater, fons amoris, here with harpsichord continuo. Moreover in the duet movements, their voices blended perfectly – it was indeed an ideal vocal match. In Sancta mater, istud agas, where soprano and mezzo each sing a stanza and then come together, their voices blended with natural ease, and also with the strings who play in unison with the vocal parts the most of the time. They both sang with total commitment to the music without any soloist airs. I was especially impressed by Murrihy, who sang her solos with a rich and elegant tone but never overpowered Rial’s pure but delicate voice in the duets. Here too, Currentzis was controlling and shaping the phrases with untiring energy (but nothing particularly controversial on this occasion), and the soloists and the orchestra performed as a homogenous whole. Ultimately, the joy of Pergolesi’s masterpiece is that it is spiritual yet musically sensuous to the ear (not austere as in Bach’s Passions), and this performance displayed these qualities in equal measures.