Haydn’s The Seasons: A Revelatory Evening

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn’s The Seasons: Carolyn Sampson (soprano, Hannah), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor, Lucas), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone, Simon), Gabrieli with members of the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra / Paul McCreesh (conductor). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 16.6.2016. (CC)

The Seasons (sung in English, transl. McCreesh)

This was a revelatory evening. Haydn’s The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten) is a wonderful, highly inventive work that reveals his genius in full measure. It has, however, been under the shadow of The Creation for far too long, and attempts to bring it into the general listening public’s awareness have too often fallen short. This performance will have gone a long way towards correcting that impression. The setting for The Seasons (text mainly from a poem by James Thomson) is an idealised rural life in which there remains a pre-Industrial Revolution joy in the World and Nature per se. The fresh innocence of those sentiments is reflected in the nature of Haydn’s music, its seeming ease hiding a raft of subtleties.

In a note to accompany the performance, Paul McCreesh speaks of the clumsy text (“largely unsingable”) and so he has provided his own translation. His intent has been to “present the singers with a version that serves Haydn’s glorious music and to offer the listener a text, in eighteenth-century style, that communicates the vision of the original poem”. The medium-scale nature of the performance was meant to reflect performances in the composer’s own time; and also it celebrated the onset of a new collaboration between Gabrieli and the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra (some members of the latter band were participating in this performance.) Recitatives were deliciously accompanied by fortepiano and continuo.

Over the course of a long evening – the performance finished around 10.15pm from a 7.30pm start – Haydn crams in joy after joy. But there’s drama there too, not least in the arresting opening, underlined by punchy timpani. This is ‘Spring’, the music initially depicting the departing previous Winter. Immediately thereafter we are introduced to the three soloists: the large-voiced confidence of bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, the ever-musical tenor of Jeremy Ovenden and the one that outshone both of them, the radiant soprano of Carolyn Sampson, who set her stamp on the performance straight away with breath-taking purity of attack and pitch in response to a beautiful oboe solo with her entrance at “And lo! From the southern shores breathe softest zephyrs”; when Haydn offers a direct comparison of the singers by writing for one immediately after the other, it was ever the radiance of Sampson’s voice that shone through – as at her entry “Let softest breezes warm the air” in ‘Spring’. Her virtuosity in the faster passages was in no doubt, either; similarly, her way with ornaments to the line was beautiful (“O what charming sights delight us”). Throughout, she was the most obviously involved soloist, colouring her voice beautifully in “How welcome now, ye shady groves”, a song with some wonderful depictions of a “youthful shepherd’s reed” from the oboist Antoine Torunczyk. At Autumn’s arrival, Sampson enjoyed every word of her opening lines (“That which Spring has promis’d”), just as she did the charming Spinning Song with Chorus (in ‘Winter’). As Lucas, Jeremy Ovenden, in fresh voice, found just the right sense of innocence. Duets worked well, too, particularly Hannah and Lucas’ “From thee, O Lord, comes ev’ry good” and that pair’s later move to the minor in ‘Autumn’, at “O how pure, O how sweet is joyous passion!”

One of the better known quirks of The Seasons is that Haydn quotes the famous theme from his ‘Surprise’ symphony in Simon’s song, “With eagerness the countryman sets forth”, a fun song that exuded jollity here with Foster-Williams seemingly enjoying every second (another surprise is the magnificently low sound of the contra bassoon,  delivered with relish here  by Dave Chatterton). Haydn’s invention seems endless: the more one looks, the more one finds.

If ‘Spring’ is joyous, Summer’s bipartite journey, initially from a “meek-eyed morn” through to a chorus praising the sun, then to drought and its consequences (including a graphically depicted storm) gives us a more complex trajectory. And if the storms are visceral, so is the hunting chase of ‘Autumn’, with its raucous horns, properly played with full abandon on this occasion by the Gabrieli section. ‘Winter’ holds desolate, still scoring of remarkable daring, and McCreesh was alert to every ounce of drama here.

The Gabrieli Choir was on top form, caressing in the gently rolling “Come, gentle Spring!”, ringingly clear and ardent in “Wonderful, bountiful, infinite God” and relishing every ounce of counterpoint Haydn writes (the latter part of the chorus “Hail, glorious sun” is a case in point). Not to mention the ribald drinking chorus in ‘Autumn’ (“Drink up, drink up, the wine is here!”), and the fun of the choir’s use of triangle and tambourines towards its end. Towards the end of the piece, Haydn splits the choir into two, an effect that worked brilliantly. The work ends with a rather severe choral fugue, almost Masonic in effect (incidentally, the Trio “May we enjoy that true reward” could almost come from Magic Flute).

This was a magnificent evening. This performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday, June 20 at 7.30pm.

Colin Clarke

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