HAYDN: The Seasons (complete oratorio) – Genia Kuhmeier, soprano/ Werner Gura, tenor/ Christian Gerhaher, baritone/ Arnold Schoenberg Choir/ Concentus Musicus Wien/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor – Deutsche Harmonia mundi 88697 28126 (2 CDs), 136:47 [Distr. by Sony/BMG] ****:
Currently there are twenty-some recording of Haydn’s last oratorio available. It has never been as popular as that which proceeded it, the Creation. While the dramatic impetus of the latter is something that allowed the composer full reign in his abilities to portray the great events of the Old Testament, the former dwells on the bliss and joys of a rustic and rural childhood that Haydn enjoyed, evidently to the fullest. Both of these works were taken from original English texts, honed and translated by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, and consequently modern recordings have enjoyed the piece in the original and in the newly fashioned German. This recording uses the latter.
Upon closer inspection it does become clear that Haydn’s work has more profundity than a simple countryside romp might suggest. Indeed, the work opens with a rather somber setting that depicts the end of winter and the onset of spring. But when spring has sprung the tone changes quickly and happily, and there is no doubt as to the overall tone of the piece as a whole. Even when we end up in winter again, the sunset of life after spring (youth) summer (establishment in life), and autumn (trials of life), Haydn’s cold season (“the ceaseless winds blow ice, assailing every mist and damp…”) still ends up with a heartfelt gathering around the fires and talk of the hopes of heaven, according to the man who does the will of God. So at last we see clearly—though it is hinted at the entire oratorio—that this is truly not so much a secular sequel to the Creation, but instead a continuation of the religious themes first postulated there.
I think the relatively sparse number of recordings is because many conductors simply do not know what the piece is really about, and how to handle its relatively genial nature. I say “relatively” because Haydn requires a whopping orchestra here, including pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and trumpets, but also a piccolo, contra-bassoon, three trombones, timpani, percussion, and keyboard (here a pianoforte). One might argue that such an assemblage indicates a large contingent of strings also, and will get no argument from me. But Harnoncourt brings in 24 strings total and the balance here seems a good one. There are the favorites of the past of course, including Bohm on DGG and Karajan on EMI (available now on a super-cheap twofer from the same label). For modern moderns, the Solti garnered a lot of praise for its upbeat tempos and willingness to reevaluate the piece. Gardiner led a sprightly period romp, though the critical consensus seems to be that Rene Jacob’s go on Harmonia mundi takes the cake in that realm, and maybe is current King of All.
But Harnoncourt adds a degree of lyrical sensibility that I have not heard in the other recordings (his soloists are superb) and the brisk pacing, according to timing comparisons, doesn’t feel that way at all. There is a soft and comforting airiness to the sound, and his period Concentus plays as well as any period band currently operating, something that could not always be said about them. I cannot recommend this over the Jacobs—or even the Bohm for that matter, for these are all excellent recordings, and some will want the English—but I can say that if you get this reading you don’t really need the others, and that is saying a lot. This is a modern marvel, and one of Harnoncourt’s finest efforts to date. No one will be disappointed.
— Steven Ritter