Much Fun! Haydn’s “Seasons” in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Haydn: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor), Rachel Harnisch (soprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Thomas E. Bauer (bass) Zürcher Singakademie, Tonhalle Zurich, 5.7.2012 (JR)

Haydn : “The Seasons” (“Die Jahreszeiten”)

Sir Roger Norrington. Photo:Manfred Esser

Sir Roger started off the concert by addressing the audience briefly, in more than passable German, to say that we were not in church but here to have fun: he wished us “viel Spass! (much fun)”. A reference, I suspect, to this work not being in the vein of “The Creation” but it’s follow-up piece, a more secular piece (Haydn originally thought of creating a trilogy with a work entitled “The Last Judgment” but gave up). We were invited to applaud at any time.

And fun, generally, is what we had. This work is generally considered to be on a par with its more popular twin “the Creation”, but performed far less often. This is probably because it lacks some of the charm of “The Creation”, includes stretches of ennui, and certainly is less tuneful. Haydn himself was dissatisfied with many parts of the work, and in particular the libretto, imposed on him and written by his patron the Viennese Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Amateur choruses probably shy away from it because there is more of a bias towards the soloists and the work cannot be not guaranteed to fill a hall. It is simply less well-known. So it turned out on the second performance in the Tonhalle – even with top soloists and a professional chorus (32 singers) the hall, sadly, had far too many empty seats.

Sir Roger, now approaching 80, is no longer sprightly and sat for the entire 130 minutes (though there was an interval); this meant he could not quite convey his sense of rhythm and bounce to his players. I yearned for some period instrument sounds at times, as he also must have done. Nevertheless the members of the Tonhalle complied with his directions of rasping bassoons, thwacked timpani, whooping horns and raucous brass, all part of the period instrument performance; special mention goes to the fine oboist of the evening, Isaac Duarte, and to Peter Solomon (keyboard) one of the several Brits in the orchestra.

The soloists were all top notch: Rachel Harnisch (Hanne) is Swiss born and a recent recruit to Zurich Opera. She impressed particularly in her aria “Welche Labung für die Sinne”; her voice is still fresh and pure, intonation and diction exemplary. Werner Güra (Lucas) has sung this role on disc for René Jacobs and was honey-toned and in full command throughout. Thomas E. Bauer was an equally accurate and mellifluous baritone in the role of Simon.

“Spring” and “Summer”, the first two seasons in this oratorio pale in comparison with “Autumn” (the star of the show) and “Winter”. “Autumn” contains the two finest choruses, the hunting sequence (all credit to the 4 horn-players, wholly in sync) and the drinking song. The Zürcher Singakademie were spot on with their entries, diction and intonation – and appeared and sounded as though they were really enjoying themselves. Only occasionally did I wish for some more volume.

Sir Roger clearly derives much pleasure from the piece, evidenced by his trade-mark turn to the audience, with a twinkle in his eye, after almost every aria or chorus, as if to say “Did you enjoy that as much as I did?” That enthusiasm infected both players and singers and brought this performance to life.

John Rhodes