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Joseph HAYDN (1732–1809)
Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons)(1801)
Gundula Janowitz (soprano) – Hanne; Werner Hollweg (tenor) – Lukas; Walter Berry (bass) – Simon;
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. November 1972 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem
EMI CLASSICS 0946 3 71482 2 8 [79:16 + 74:00]


Of Haydn’s two late oratorios, both to librettos by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Die Jahreszeiten has been the Cinderella – and with good reason.

There is no denying the beauty of the music, the folk-music freshness of much of the melodic material and the exquisite scoring, but where the text for Die Schöpfung, notwithstanding a good portion of naivety, has dramatic potential and is a perfect foil to Haydn’s powerfully descriptive writing, Die Jahreszeiten is feeble and rurally idyllic and comprises a pleasant but toothless quasi-religiosity that leads nowhere in particular. Of course van Swieten is to blame but the musico-dramatic layout is also lax. Take the second part, Der Sommer: It starts softly and slowly “Im grauen Schleier rückt heran” and these grey veils prevail throughout the five-minute-long sequence. Simon’s “Der munt’re Hirt …” is merry but in an idyllic way – as befits a shepherd maybe. Then there is some powerful choral singing for another five minutes, followed by slow recitatives by Simon and Lukas. Lukas’ cavatina [4:17] is marked largo, Hanna’s recitative [5:08] is poco adagio and her aria [6:36] an extremely slow-moving adagio. The three soloists then share the recitative beginning “O seht! Es steiget”. What is rising? It’s “the tempest drawing nigh!” and here, finally, something breaks the idyll, in Karajan’s hands this tempest is a furious explosion, an outlet, it seems, for the adrenalin gathered during the frustratingly long period of laziness. This explosion persists for 4½ minutes – and then back to the idyll “The gloomy clouds now part aside”. Summer is over!

Let me point out again that there is a tremendous amount of marvellous music in this oratorio but it rarely catches fire. I learnt Die Schöpfung from an LP-set very early and when I got an opportunity to hear Die Jahreszeiten in a live performance I had very high expectations. It was all lovely music but I still felt done out of it. I nevertheless acquired the legendary Böhm recording shortly afterwards and have returned to it time and again with great pleasure – but also with this disappointment. Even Haydn had doubts about the libretto: “In Die Schöpfung, the characters are angels, but in Die Jahreszeiten, they are peasants.”

Having listened to a number of other recordings through the last decades – but by no means all the existing ones – I retain a special feeling for the Böhm, thanks to his unerring choice of tempos, his unmannered interpretation and, not least, his three wonderful soloists. He has Gundula Janowitz even fresher of voice and more natural sounding than for Karajan, Peter Schreier fairly early in his career, more rounded in tone but even here insightful and expressive, and, head and shoulders above all the competition, the likewise young Martti Talvela, so secure and warm and relishing his first aria, “Schon eilet froh der Ackersmann” with a glint in his eye. The somewhat later – later even than Karajan – Decca recording under Dorati also has much to commend it with the Brighton Festival Chorus sonorous and incisive and Cotrubas, Krenn and Hans Sotin on good form. Only last year I reviewed Warner’s reissue of a live recording under Harnoncourt, that seems a good mix between modern orchestra (the Vienna Symphony) and period approach.

Comparing speeds it seems that Karajan is a spring and autumn person with fresh and lively playing and singing, the chorus “Komm holder Lenz” (CD1 tr. 2) setting the seal and with an almost orgiastic drinking chorus celebrating the arrival of the autumn. His summer is uncommonly languid and drowsy – apart from that explosive tempest (CD1 tr. 19) and his winter is frostier than any other – one can feel the cold piercing one’s very marrow. All this is handled with the utmost skill and with orchestral and choral contributions to match. It could be argued, though, that the great orchestra tamer is playing to the gallery with these extreme contrasts in tempo and dynamics. Though he is admirably consistent in his approach and can turn in wonderful results I still have a creepy feeling that he is more after effect than the truth of the score. And, to return to that long sloooow section of part two, it becomes almost perversely slow in Karajan’s reading.

Gundula Janowitz is, as I have already mentioned, almost as wonderful as for Böhm, slightly hampered by the tempo of her aria “Welche Labung für die Sinne”, but on the whole giving a deeply felt picture of Hanna. Werner Hollweg uses his well modulated tenor to good effect and his half voice is attractive. He can also be a bit unsteady, again possibly due to Karajan’s lazy summer approach. Walter Berry was, just as Ms Janowitz, one of Karajan’s longstanding favourite singers and with his fruity bass and lively manners he rarely lets things down but he feels a little anonymous by the side of Talvela - a little more small-scale.

Whatever reservations I may have expressed, concerning both the work and the actual performance, this is still a recommendable recording, now at a very affordable price. One has to make do without a libretto, there is not even a synopsis, but the track-list has at least the first line for each number and so we get the gist of what it is about.

Conservative as I most certainly am nowadays, I would still opt for the Böhm, now in DG’s “Originals” series, as a more natural first choice, but I will certainly want to return to Karajan for some unique insights, however laboured. The sound is somewhat less sophisticated than on some other BPO/Karajan recordings and the soloists seem to be in a slightly different acoustic, but this didn’t bother me unduly.

Göran Forsling 


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