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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) (1801)
Angela Maria Blasi (soprano) – Hanne
Josef Protschka (tenor) – Lucas
Robert Holl (bass) – Simon
Arnold Schönberg-Chor
Wiener Symphoniker/Nicolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded live 11-12 January 1987, Konzerthaus, Vienna
WARNER APEX 2564 62086-2 [73:51 + 71:14]


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Of the two oratorios Haydn wrote in his old age The Creation is the more dramatic and immediate while The Seasons is more idyllic. It’s also a good deal longer, which to some extent explains why The Creation is regularly performed while its country cousin is a comparatively rare visitor to the concert hall. There is no denying that the later work contains a lot of good music and has a more folksy character; Austrian folk music is never far away. It is also has a more leisurely pace with long stretches of admittedly beautiful but slow and restrained music. There are moments of drama also, for example the end of part II, Summer (CD1 tracks 16 – 18), where in the recitative the soloists build up the tension. This describes how the air changes, the sky turns black, “the muted roar from the valley that announces the furious tempest”. We hear the timpani murmuring in the distance and suddenly lightning flashes, the thunder rolls and the people (the chorus) are dismayed and frightened. Harnoncourt makes the most of this, rhythmically alert and backed up by the excellent Arnold Schönberg-Choir. Suddenly the thunderstorm is over, the sun looks out again and the soloists and the choir rejoice.

Part III, Autumn, is actually the season when things happen. Farmers delight in the rich harvest in the fugal choral setting at the end of the trio (CD2 track 2). The hunting chorus with its braying horns is another peak (CD2 track 8). Autumn ends with a lively drinking chorus (CD2 track 10) and a dancing finale. All of this is finely done with precision and high spirits.

As is his wont Harnoncourt works with contrasts. Sometimes these can sound over-done, as in some of his Mozart operas, but here his approach pays dividends and keeps the listener’s interest alive. His tempos are generally well judged. Making random comparison with another great Haydn conductor, Antal Dorati, often reveals similar speeds, give or take a few seconds in individual numbers. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra play well – this is no period instrument performance – and the choir, trained by Erwin Ortner, is one of Europe’s best.

Dorati, recorded roughly ten years before Harnoncourt, has the RPO and the Brighton Festival Chorus, and generally there is little to choose between these two versions. Even further back, in the late 1960s, DG recorded the work, also with the Vienna Symphony but this time paired with the Vienna Singverein and with Karl Böhm conducting. This has always been regarded as a top contender and I have enjoyed it since its first release. Böhm may be more old-fashioned but he was always a sure-footed interpreter of the Vienna classics. Each of these three versions is valid and enjoyable in its own terms.

Maybe the deciding factor will be the soloists – and they are important in this work. They have a lot to sing, in recitatives and arias and in ensembles, mostly trios. Böhm has a magnificent trio of singers: Peter Schreier and Martti Talvela, both of them just turned thirty, and Gundula Janowitz was even younger. Talvela owned one of the most gigantic bass voices ever heard and sings with great authority and feeling while Schreier at this early stage of his career possessed a rounded sappy voice with a lot of character. The young Janowitz is in her creamiest voice. But Dorati’s trio is not far behind: the lovely Ileana Cotrubas, the lyrically shining Werner Krenn and the impressive Hans Sotin.

How do Harnoncourt’s singers measure up against these predecessors? On the whole very well indeed. Josef Protschka is a fine lyrical tenor with a certain similarity to Schreier. He can sing ravishing pianissimos as in his cavatina Dem Druck erlieget die Natur (CD1 track 13) but he has also ringing power for the Winter-aria Hier steht der Wandrer nun (CD2 track 14). The soprano Angela Maria Blasi has a lovely lyrical voice, bright and light, singing very sensitively and with a good trill in her Summer-aria (CD1 tracks 14-15). Robert Holl has a strong darkish voice, prone to be a bit ungainly and adopting a slight beat when under pressure. He is however a sensitive artist, a renowned Lieder-singer, and can tone things down to a ravishing half-voice. He is at his very best in the largo near the end of Winter, Erblicke hier, betörter Mensch. There his voice rings out with greater freedom than in any of the earlier parts.

As a reviewer I am supposed to be able to give a clear recommendation – but I can’t. Let me put it this way: I have always been fond of the Böhm version, having lived with it for nearly forty years; when I got the Dorati I admired his lighter touch. Harnoncourt, more filled with contrasts than either of the others, is perhaps the version for the new millenium. You can’t go far wrong, whichever you choose and Harnoncourt, recorded live in good sound and very few extraneous noises, is on two well-filled budget-priced discs with a good essay in the booklet. And, lo and behold, full texts and translations!

Göran Forsling

 

 



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