Haydn’s “The Seasons” Melts the Ice on a Rather Cold Evening!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn: Christiane Karg (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Christopher Purves (baritone), Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.1.2012 (MMB)

Haydn: The Seasons

Back in 2009, the 200th anniversary of composer Franz Josef Haydn’s death, I had the pleasure of interviewing distinguished musicologist Richard Wigmore regarding the launch of his insightful book on Haydn and his music, published by Faber & Faber, as part of their Pocket Guide Series. During our conversation, I asked him a question related to Haydn’s The Creation and I stated that it was arguably the composer’s greatest work. What Mr Wigmore replied stuck forever in my mind; not because it was memorable but because for the first time, somebody had actually expressed my own view. Mr Wigmore said: “Yes, you can say it is arguably his greatest work. Most people would say it is; personally, I would put The Seasons slightly higher”. Last night, at the Barbican Hall, I was reminded of all this because it was an evening of magnificent music and because Richard Wigmore was the author of the rather excellent programme notes that made not only for informative but also pleasurable reading.

The Seasons is to me, as I have already mentioned, one of Haydn’s greatest masterpieces (and he produced many) and one of my all time favourites. It was presented at the Barbican, as part of their Classical 11-12 English-language Oratorios series. Yet, Haydn first wrote the music to a text in German, albeit a not-so-good translation and adaption of James Thomson’s brilliant epic poem. I have heard the piece in English and in German, I tend to favour the German version; perhaps because the English language when sung (except for pop or rock music) has to be pronounced in a way that makes it utterly artificial. A fact that does not happen to the same degree in German, Italian or French. These languages sound in song as natural as they do in speech, at least to my trained ear. This is naturally a very personal opinion from a linguist but, linguistic considerations aside though, the “star” of any performance of The Seasons is undoubtedly Haydn’s music and this the Gabrieli Consort & Players really honoured in last night’s performance.

Paul McCreesh, their founder and artistic director, offered a beautifully authentic reading of Haydn’s music and led his players in an exhilarating rendition of the piece. From the magnificent introduction in G minor, which McCreesh and the musicians attacked with gusto and which expresses the passage of Winter to Spring, to the delicate recitative moments or the vibrant, splendid hunting chorus in Autumn and the final glorious four-part fugue in Winter, the Gabrieli Consort and Players were flawless. They performed with peerless technique and an energy that proved contagious, rippling through the audience at the end of the concert in waves of roaring applause. The choir matched the orchestra, note by note, in the quality of their singing and their almost youthful enthusiasm. The parts written for the chorus by Haydn, in The Seasons, are some of the most brilliant and dazzling moments in music. The singers of the Gabrieli Consort definitely did the composer full justice!

The three soloists gave comparable performances to those of the Gabrieli Consort & Players, offering moments of great beauty and flawless singing. Christopher Purves, a veteran of the stage, played Simon, the oldest of the three peasants and father of Hannah. Purves was in fine voice and negotiated his arias with ease, giving a lighter touch when required but becoming pensive and sad, as appropriate, in his final aria when Simon reflects on life from the perspective of an old man, soon to face his “creator”. The only thing I would say is that I found him a little too solemn during the recitatives. Allan Clayton’s beautifully clear voice created a refreshing Lucas. He has easy high notes and a rather suggestive pianissimo, negotiating long, difficult phrases with refinement. At times, his voice has a slight metallic edge that can damage his purity of tone but he seems to be aware of it and controls it when needed. He is still very young but I think at present he is certainly the most promising British tenor. I have yet to watch him in a full opera but I must say that I am really looking forward to such an opportunity. I enjoyed the performances of Purves and Clayton very much indeed but to me, the surprise of the evening and the artist who impressed me the most, was young German soprano Christiane Karg as Hannah (Simon’s daughter). Her tone is warm; sweet as honey and pure as fresh water with a crystal clear quality that proved extremely engaging. She was a joy to listen to from beginning to end; her voice carries powerful, high notes to the back of the hall with as much ease as the quiet, softer passages. She moved seamlessly from forte to piano and back again, phrasing with elegance and grace. Her diction, pronunciation and most of all, intonation of the English language could not have been more perfect and spot on if she were a native. A truly wonderful performance and I can only wish that we will hear more of Ms Karg in Britain. She is scheduled to sing an evening of Lieder with Malcolm Martineau, at Wigmore Hall, later this year, which is indeed welcome news though sadly, one must wait until July!

Finally, all there is left for me to say is that, on a rather cold, icy night, which lingered in the streets of London, the vivid musical images of spring, summer and autumn, in particular, warmed up the hearts (and the hands) of the public in the Barbican Hall, leaving us all with a feeling of happiness and comfort. Something that, in the current gloomy economic world in which we are living, is a precious gift indeed!

Margarida Mota-Bull