HAYDN: Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) – Miah Persson, soprano (Hanne) /Jeremy Ovenden, tenor (Lukas) /Andrew Foster-Williams, bass (Simon) /London Symphony Orchestra /London Symphony Chorus /Colin Davis – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0708 (2 discs), 65:18; 63:17 [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Hoping to capitalize on the success of The Creation, its librettist, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, proposed a new project to Haydn, this one based on Scottish poet James Thomson’s popular The Seasons. It was a promising choice; The Creation, completed in 1730, was a work of the Augustan Age in its stately, classically allusive blank verse. Yet it anticipated the Romantic Era in its depiction of the raw majesty of nature.
Like Thomson’s poem, Haydn’s The Creation would be a Janus-like creation, building on the pictorial tradition established in Handel’s oratorios and at the same time anticipating trends in Romantic music: a celebration of nature and of the common man and woman. In Haydn’s work, Thomson’s depiction of the summer storm translates into what Richard Wigmore calls “the first great Romantic picture-in-sound of the warring elements. . . .” And Haydn matches Thomson’s poetic specificity in his orchestral and vocal depictions of spring’s vibrancy, summer’s heat and haze, winter’s fogs. It’s true that many of Haydn’s musical evocations—croaking frogs, calling birds, and the like—are just updates of the same kind of orchestral tricks that Handel employed in his oratorios. But there’s a new spirit as well as Haydn’s vocalists and choristers celebrate the beauties of woodland and field and the bounty of the harvest—or share a good laugh over a tale told around a fire in winter.
However, the project was not without difficulties. Haydn complained of ill health and despaired of having the strength to complete his oratorio. Meanwhile, he argued with van Swieten over aspects of the libretto, which wasn’t made of the strongest stuff in the first place. Van Swieten had something of a tin ear for versification, and he worked from a German translation of Thomson’s poem by Barthold Brockes, resulting in the kind of watering down and even bowdlerization that happens in such third-party transactions.
For me, the end of the oratorio is a letdown. After Hanne’s lively tale of putting one over on a lecherous squire, complete with note-perfect interjections by the at-first scandalized and then amused choir, van Swieten switches gears immediately, concocting a pious aria in which the bleakness of winter is compared to old age. There’s some righteous moralizing about virtue leading us on to our heavenly reward, which is glimpsed in a final trio and chorus that, not surprisingly, represents Haydn at less than his best. I’ve read one critic who laments that Haydn even bothered to write the third part of his Die Schöpfung since the first two are so perfect. This strikes me as something of a heresy, but on the other hand I’d be glad to do without the last part of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten. Then again, there is so much good music throughout, the limp ending not withstanding!
Die Jahreszeiten has fared very well on disc. For years, the gold standard was the DGG recording with Janowitz, Schreier, Talvela, and Böhm. Rival versions by Karajan, Marriner, Harnoncourt, and Colin Davis himself (on Philips) also have their adherents. However, as for SACD versions on modern instruments, Davis seems to have the field to himself at present. I’m happy to report that this is a very competitive recording interpretively, and SACD sound adds its own luster to the proceedings. Davis’s recording of Haydn’s xi is still a staple of the Philips catalog, and his recording of the Oxford Symphony (No. 92) is just about the best I’ve heard on disc. So Davis’s success with Haydn’s oratorio is not surprising. His orchestra plays with a lean, clean sound, Davis managing a judicious balance between the strings and the nicely prominent brass. If the woodwinds seem recessive, I think that’s a function of the recording, which is somewhat distant—perhaps the engineers’ way of compensating for the reportedly dry ambiance of the Barbican. This affects the chorus as well, which doesn’t have quite the presence or definition it should have, though they really throw themselves into Haydn’s lusty picturesque music.
Davis certainly keeps things moving, with sprightly tempi that rival those of original-instrument performances. In fact, Davis’s is just as lively as my favorite period-authentic performance, that by René Jacobs on Harmonia mundi. (I haven’t heard the version by John Gardiner, which some think the finest available.) Jacobs benefits from a closer, more tactile sound recording, but he has very little on Davis in terms of sheer vitality. Haydn’s great set pieces, such as the storm chorus and the harvest chorus, are brimming with life in Davis’s performance. And special kudos to the London Symphony horn section, which does bang-up work in the hunting chorus.
I mostly enjoy the work of Davis’s soloists as well, though the vicissitudes of live performance challenge them in spots: Foster-Williams’s first entry, Seht, wie der strenge Winter flieht! (“See how stern Winter takes flight!”), is a bit ragged, as is the final trio and chorus, where there is a decided wobble to Miah Perrson’s soprano. But overall, there’s character and spirit to the solo singing, as there is to the performance as a whole.
As I say, the sound is somewhat recessed, but the engineers compensate for this in the sense of spaciousness and spread they’re able to achieve. In sum, at LSO Live’s mid-price point, Davis’s Die Jahreszeiten can compete with the best versions available.
— Lee Passarella
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