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CD: AmazonUK
Download: Classicsonline


Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Jahreszeiten (1801) [131:13]
Christiane Oelze (soprano); Scot Weir (tenor); Peter Lika (bass)
RIAS Kammerchor
The Chamber of Orchestra of Europe/Sir Roger Norrington
rec. live, Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie, Berlin, September 1991. DDD
HÄNSSLER PH07076 [65:37 + 65:36] 
Experience Classicsonline

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 Springtime.

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 Music Room. 

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.

Simon Thompson



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