Haydn’s evergreen oratorio was composed in the hope that he and
his librettist, van Swieten, would have a popular success along
the lines of the Creation. That wasn’t to be: the Creation
has always been much more popular, and it’s easy to see why.
There is almost no dramatic cohesion between the different sections
of the Seasons, save three rather tokenistic stock characters
(the soloists) who appear in each section. The bucolic imagery
can get a little wearing too: all is well in this idyllic pastoral
scene, even in the depths of Winter, and it lacks the tension
and elation to be found in The Creation. There are some
similarities, however, most notably where Haydn allows himself
to depict nature in an autumnal hunt and especially in the way
various creatures (sheep, fish, bees) respond to the awakening
Norrington revels in these episodes and it is here
that we can most clearly sense his affinity with this score.
The episode depicting the different animals (CD1, track 8)
is full of humour and attention to detail with characterful
contributions from each section of the orchestra. Similarly,
the orchestral hunt rollicks along nicely with lusty contributions
from the chorus. In many ways the RIAS Kammerchor are the
most appealing thing about this set. Impeccably trained,
they attack every entry with vigour and it is really exciting
to hear each complex chorus build from its opening. They
are at their best in the two great hymns: to the sun (CD1,
track 12) and to the benefits of industry (CD2, track 3) and
they support the soloists well when required to sing together,
helped by the enviable acoustic of the Philharmonie’s Chamber
Norrington is at home in this score. The miniature
tone poems that begin each section unfold naturally, though
the opening of CD 1 is rather alarming with no opening silence
at all! I wonder if this was an editing error? This repertoire
has always suited him best. He first came to widespread attention
with his London performances of Mozart and Beethoven, and
while his move to Stuttgart has seen him dabbling in Mahler
and Bruckner with varying levels of success, this repertoire
seems to fit him like a glove. His tempi are well judged
and benefit from his extensive experience of period performance.
The COE respond just as well: while playing on modern instruments
- except what sound like natural trumpets and period timpani
- they are famous for their adherence to period style; witness
their Beethoven recordings with Harnoncourt. So in many ways
this performance gives us the best of both worlds: we avoid
the rather severe period sound from Jacobs and the Freiburgers
(Harmonia Mundi) and the Karajan soup he serves up with the
BPO on EMI, though with an incredible trio of soloists.
Norrington’s soloists are fairly middle of the
road. Peter Lika is disappointing, with too much gritty tone.
Christiane Oelze is crystal clear, however, and really makes
you sit up and notice. Scot Weir is also pleasingly mellifluous,
especially in his Cavatina in Part 2 (CD1, track 15). The
“live-ness” of the recording is barely noticeable, save a
few coughs and some enthusiastic applause at the very end,
though at the start the chorus feel a little recessed.
So this Seasons is a fine addition to the
catalogue, if a little nondescript. One wonders why Hänssler
have chosen to release it 17 years after they recorded it?
While it does steer a middle road between traditional and
period performance, that means that it is in danger of falling
between two stools. Having heard this, I still have a strong
liking for Gardiner’s version (DG) which conforms to period
style without the often harsh severity of Jacobs. A reliable
release for Norrington fans, however. The documentation contains
German texts and English translations though, frustratingly,
at opposite ends of the booklet.