I am sure you have come across the sort of person who stops
a conversation in its tracks by making a comment on the subject under
discussion that is provocatively contrary to received wisdom. It is usually
designed to impress. I will give you a musical example. Imagine a few
friends discussing Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius after attending
a performance and someone claims the experience has just confirmed to
them what a masterpiece it is. Then one of the party chips in with, "Well
I have to say I still regard The Kingdom as the greater work".
Now it is probable that none of the others present is in a position to
challenge this (which no doubt is the intention) since they may not be
familiar with Elgar's lesser known oratorio.
Imagine a similar scenario but exchange Gerontius
for Haydn's Creation and there will be a know-all who will
say, "well actually I consider The Seasons a greater work",
(or they may say "Die Jahreszeiten " hoping that no
one else can pronounce it, or preferably hasn't heard of it).
It is becoming increasingly fashionable to claim that
The Seasons contains a higher proportion of top rate Haydn than
The Creation. Take scholar/pianist Charles Rosen, for example.
"In neither The Creation nor The Seasons is the high
level of writing always as successfully and as continuously sustained
as in the great symphonies and quartets (although the less admired Seasons
seem to me more successful in this respect)". He then adds,
by the way, the throw-a-way remark, ".. but they are among the
greatest works of the century".
If you believe Rosen then it follows that The Creation
would lend itself more to a highlights approach than The Seasons.
But if we take a more old fashioned view of The Seasons:
Roger Fiske, for example, writing forty years ago - "The Seasons
does not stand up to complete performance, partly because the recitatives
grow wearisome as one’s indifference to the fate of Jane, Lucas, and
Simon increases" - then clearly, selective highlighting is the
solution. Fiske touches on The Seasons’ problem; its plot. The
Creation, with its divinely directed apocalyptic events has a sure,
lofty sense of progression from chaos to order. The Seasons, on
the other hand, is a cyclically seasonal tale of simple country folk,
a sort of Lower Austrian Archers.
Either way, this highlights reissue, first put out
in 1975, three years after the recording of the complete work, would
be a way of ensuring you can hear the best bits. So imagine my surprise
when it failed to include the very opening (Spring) which is a superbly
developed orchestral section invoking Winter-Spring transition followed
by the succinct introduction of the three protagonists in quick order.
The entry of Hanne ("Jane"), as she welcomes the warm Spring
breezes is exquisite. We get none of that. Without this scene-setter
it is clear that the approach is not to be a summary of the work. But
it misses out some of the best music (the wonderful sunrise in Summer
is also cut, would you believe) and there is a fair amount of recitative,
the sort of thing Roger Fiske was moaning about. Consequently I failed
to discern the rationale behind the compilation.
Nevertheless there are splendid things to be heard,
not least of all Gundula Janowitz who is the trump card in this Karajan
performance as she was in her earlier recording with Karl Böhm
and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. There is a timbre to Janowitz’s voice
that is quite unlike any other soprano that I have ever heard. It has
an airy, reedy quality that makes it perfect for the outdoor pastoralism
of The Seasons. On this disc we have to wait until Summer
to hear her, but it is worth waiting for. In the aria, Haydn has Hanne
responding to the symbolic optimism of Summer in a way that is, at the
same time, both spiritual and sensually earthy. As in her initial entry
that I referred to earlier, he has her dialoguing with an oboe (the
orchestra’s most pastoral member), an instrument that perfectly matches
Janowitz’s unique sound. If you were to listen to this after hearing
her in the Böhm version then it makes Karajan’s way with this music
sound hopelessly over indulgent. I would guess he takes it 30% slower
than Böhm but it is possible to be seduced by the romantic sound
of the Berlin Orchestra and the oboe soloist is so intoxicating as to
be in danger of upstaging Janowitz.
If you enjoy the Karajan/Berlin sound then there is
much to delight and excite on this disc, the blazing hunting horns in
Autumn being one of many examples.
There must be comfortably over a third of the whole
work represented here. Bearing in mind my comments above, my advice
would be: why not buy the whole thing? There are some fine recorded
performances but if you want Janowitz then her earlier version is available
on CD and Böhm is more springy than Karajan, keeping up a momentum
that not only is more suited to complete performance but better matches
the subject matter.