In Leipzig Haydn Works His Magic Yet Again

GermanyGermany Haydn: Christina Landshamer (soprano), Daniel Behle (tenor), Michael Nagy (baritone), Gewandhaus Choir, Dresden Chamber Choir (chorus master: Edward Caswell), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Trevor Pinnock (conductor). Grosser Saal, Leipzig Gewandhaus, 28.4.2017. (MB)

Haydn – Die Jahreszeiten/The Seasons

A much discussed – and much praised – recent recording of The Seasons has been that from Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli forces (reviewed here by John Quinn). I have not heard it yet, although I wrote the booklet note; a copy is, I believe, awaiting me on a brief return to the United (sic) Kingdom next month. However, I know that it is sung in English, and on the grandest – authentic in the proper sense – scale. Trevor Pinnock’s Leipzig Gewandhaus performance was, naturally, sung in German, and with small forces: strings, and two small choirs coming together to make one chorus. What may occasionally have been lost in grandeur, though – this was definitely more Marriner than Karajan – offered compensations in terms of intimacy (not, of course, that we should fall for the canard that such need be lacking in larger-scale performances).

What perhaps surprised me was that Pinnock’s way with Haydn’s score was often somewhat Romantic (in the more popular sense, rather than necessarily having anything much to do with the nineteenth century). Tempi were rarely rushed, if anything, slightly – occasionally more than slightly – on the slower side, with more than a little lingering in certain cases. For instance, relaxation in the first number, during the orchestral interlude between Lukas’s and Hanne’s words, was greater than I can recall hearing, but convincing, even delightful. Pinnock generally, as, for example, in the following chorus, ‘Komm, holder Lenz!’ shaped the music nicely, without moulding it unduly. Rhythms could be perky, well sprung, when called for too, as in ‘Schon eilet froh der Ackermann’, which also benefited from some ear-catching piccolo playing (Alexander Koval, a member of the orchestra’s Mendelssohn Orchestra Academy). Indeed, woodwind colour was very much to the fore throughout, solo flautist, Sébastian Jacot and solo oboist, Philippe Tondre time and time again delighting the ear and heightening one’s musical perception. In the Spinning Song, woodwind solos sounded unusually present, as ‘relief’, against the darker, proto-Weberian, even proto–Wagnerian, whirring of the wheel. The pictorial elements were vivid, self-explanatory, so much so that, at times, one almost need not have listened to the words, but not at the expense of line and flow. What a relief, moreover, it was to have intelligent, interesting continuo playing (Michael Schönheit, the Gewandhausorganist, on fortepiano) that was not of the exhibitionistic ‘look at me’ school. (Let us hope that that fad passes soon.)

There were a very few occasions when the string tone was a little thinner than might have been ideal; Simon’s aria at the beginning of Summer was one, following a finely veiled (vibrato withdrawn) introduction. More often than not, though, the litheness we heard in the very opening number proved far from antithetical to warmth and cultivation. Perhaps Pinnock’s concentration, or communication thereof, was nodding a little in those early minutes of Summer, for the soloists’ lead-up to Sun’s full majesty was a little sluggish. Thereafter, though, in that Trio and Chorus, majesty and thrills were in full supply. Timpanist Mathias Müller, chose his sticks and general approach carefully: this was anything but a one-size-fits-all approach, as befits so vividly colourful, temporally (and climatically) transforming a score. The distant thunder in Simon’s recitative, ‘O seht! Es steiget in der schwülen Luft’ a case in point. I loved the general uncanniness in that calm before the storm, which then came, if not quite de profundis, then certainly out of the dark. The way, moreover, in which the music picked itself up, as it were, with Lukas’s ‘Die düst’ren Wolken trennen sich’ was spot on: credit both to Daniel Behle, orchestra, and conductor. When tempi were swifter than ‘traditional’, as in the Chorus in Praise of Industry, the result was light of foot rather than uncomfortably driven.

Behle’s relatively light tenor did not lack depth or seriousness when called upon. It matched well Christina Landshamer’s soprano, possessed of equal clarity and cleanness of line, although sometimes a little unclear of diction. Both are undoubtedly intelligent, musical artists. Michael Nagy’s baritone was for me the vocal highlight, its richness never an end in itself, but the foundation for a wide variety indeed of tonal variegation. At one extreme would be the splendidly grey monotone (if that should not be a complete contradiction in terms) on ‘steht er, unbewegt, der Stein,’ as befitted the words. His sadness at the beginning of Winter – Pinnock’s very slow tempi offering striking contrast with Lukas’s Aria, ‘Hier steht der Wand’rer nun’ – approached hopelessness yet did not capitulate. Even in that relative pallor of tone, there was beauty: Winter indeed, one might say. Choral singing offered many of the same virtues, clear throughout, weightier at the ‘big’ moments, ably supported by resplendent brass (and the rest of the orchestra, of course). If I had my doubts about Pinnock’s brisk, even martial beginning to the final number, more contrast, it seemed, than climax, the stereophony of Haydn’s eight-part choral writing, a question-and-answer cross between The Magic Flute and Israel in Egypt, banished them as swiftly as it did those winter clouds of old age.

Mark Berry

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