United Kingdom Haydn: Monika Eder (soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone), London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 17.4.2016. (MB)
Talk about a hard act to follow: Sir Colin Davis’s final performance of The Seasons, available for all of us to hear on LSO Live (I had to miss the performance on account of a wedding) is a clear first-choice recommendation on disc. Did Sir Colin’s knighted LSO successor-to-be have a chance? Of sounding like that, no? But then that is not what Simon Rattle was trying to do. Whilst I am more in sympathy, to put it mildly, with Davis’s approach, that should not preclude me, or indeed anyone else, from finding much of worth in Rattle’s Haydn. Whereas I have found his Mozart and Beethoven well-nigh unbearably mannered, he has long seemed closer to Haydn’s spirit and his advocacy of the composer – who, incredibly, still desperately needs such advocacy – is gratefully received. I enjoyed this performance greatly, and had the sense that my enjoyment was shared in the rest of the audience.
‘Spring’ opened in the anticipated low- yet certainly not no-vibrato fashion. Rattle seemed eager to draw from the LSO, and how, a keen sense of the sheer strangeness of Haydn’s orchestral colours, even suggesting a kinship – perhaps via Haydn’s experience of the Concert spirituel? – with Rameau. Split violins definitely helped the sense of back and forth between firsts and seconds, but there were times when a longer string line would have been, to my ears at least, desirable. The care over orchestral detail, which rarely descended into fussiness, persisted into Simon’s recitative, the orchestral crescendo following ‘Ihm folgt auf seinen Ruf’ beautifully handled, keenly dramatic. All three voices in this opening number, Florian Boesch, Andrew Staples, and Monika Eder, were shown to be well contrasted and their contributions well characterised. The London Symphony Chorus, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, was on magnificent form, offering verbal clarity and meaning, as well as great character, from its opening ‘Komm, holder Lenz!’ onwards. Dynamic contrasts and concern for phrasing were to the fore, without exaggeration; here, the LSO strings offered great polish. Simon’s aria, ‘Schon eilet froh der Ackermann’, offered smiles in both the vocal line and the orchestra. Rattle might not have sounded ‘like’ Beecham, but perhaps there was a little of his spirit here nevertheless? Staples’s Tamino-like tenor was welcome in the Farmer’s Prayer and much that we heard after, too; the blend between his Lucas, Boesch’s Simon, and Eder’s Hannah, was here heard to near perfection. So was the sheer goodness of Haydn – as man and as composer. Hannah sounded nicely in ‘character’, or at least in ‘type’, in the ‘Song of Joy’, likewise ‘her’ Lucas; although the voices are different, there was more than a hint of Adam and Eve from The Creation, or Papageno and Papagena. Boesch’s reference to the breath of the Creator reminded us splendidly of the particular theology of this work.
‘Summer’ likewise opened with very little lower string vibrato: fair enough, for Lucas tells us of the morning light being veiled in grey mist. There was all the more contrast to be heard then with the lustig singing of Boesch in ‘Der munt’re Hirt’, and some lovely horn playing there too. The chorus did not disappoint in its hymn to the sun, although I was a little surprised by the Karajan-like metal Rattle imparted to ‘Die Segen, o wer zählet sie?’ He is certainly not predictable, which is mostly to the good. I greatly enjoyed the way the LSO and Staples (and Rattle) polished Lucas’s Cavatina, ‘Dem Druck erlieget der Natur’, a jewel, and here it sounded as such, of Webern-like quality. Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe solos in Hannah’s recitative and aria were as delectable as anyone might ever dream of, perhaps more so, the LSO strings buzzing with properly insect-like quality in the former number. The calm before the storm was unnervingly apparent, not only in string pizzicato, but in Eder’s apprehension. When it came, choral and orchestral terror had nothing to fear from Beethovenian, even Wagnerian, comparisons. One could still hear, moreover, Haydn’s part-writing from the LSC; this was no mere ‘effect’. (For all that I love Karl Böhm’s VSO recording, the singing of the Wiener Singverein can be a bit of a trial.) Either one loves the animals in the Trio and Chorus, ‘Die düst’ren Wolken’, or one does not; even Haydn professed not to do so. Dare I suggest that he was wrong, or that he might have changed his mind about ‘frenchified trash’, had he heard the LSO players? And yes, the evening bell tolled surely, above all lovingly. The closing chorus could have made an avowed city-boy such as yours truly think twice about rejecting rural life out of hand.
The Introduction to ‘Autumn’ was not a high-point for me; I could not really understand why Rattle was so keen to play down the LSO strings. One can certainly have prominent woodwind without doing so; ask Davis, or Klemperer. Anyway, the Chorus in praise of industry benefited greatly from Boesch’s easy Austrian way with the text. It got the second half of the concert off to a rollicking start, rasping brass (clearly Rattle’s choice) notwithstanding. The Magic Flute came to mind once again in the Duet between Hannah and Lucas, although so did Schubert in one especially ‘special’ modulation. Rachel Gough’s bassoon solo was a delight in the neo-Handelian ‘Seht auf die breiten Wiesen hin!’ As for the Hunting Chorus, now as politically correct as Monostatos, the four horns and the men of the LSC performed it for all it was worth (a great deal!) The drunken chorus thereafter was despatched with due revelry: far more theatrical than with Davis, but none the worse for it.
The grave beauty of the Introduction to ‘Winter’ set it quite apart from anything we had heard previously; again, it was The Magic Flute, this time its trials, that seemed closest, although the sadness to be heard as the movement progressed was closer (and not just harmonically) to Tristan und Isolde. Boesch’s dignity here was greatly valued. Eder seemed to come into her own in the Spinning Chorus, presenting it as a cousin to its opposite number in The Flying Dutchman. The following solo song with chorus, quite rightly, sounded closer still to Weber, Der Freischütz in particular. Boesch’s way with that wonderful final aria, ‘Erblicke hier, betörter Mensch,’ presented an almost Sachs-like (Wahn monologue), psychoanalytical clearing of the mists. And finally, the great trio and double chorus, harking back not only to The Magic Flute but also to Israel in Egypt: what a joyous farewell, especially from the LSC, we heard to the eighteenth century!
The concert was recorded for broadcast in early May by Sky Arts.