Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seasons, oratorio in four parts (1801) (sung in English)
Susanne Peck (soprano); Charles Reid (tenor); Jan Opalach (bass-baritone); The Fairfield County Chorale; Amor Artis Classical Orchestra/Johannes Somary
rec. Norwalk Concert Hall, Norwalk, CT, USA, 7-10 March 2009. DDD.
Booklet with text included.

Haydn's The Creation is much better served, more often performed and recorded than his other oratorio The Seasons. Much as I love the former, I must admit to being less moved by the latter - indeed, I wonder whether the sundry self-borrowings to be found in it don't indicate that Haydn himself was less involved in composing it - but it certainly deserves more than the occasional outing.

The libretto is part of the problem. Haydn intended both The Creation and The Seasons to be bilingual works, in German and in English. The problem, in both cases, has always been that, although his librettist, Baron von Swieten, was possessed of English good enough to translate the texts which he took from Milton and to adapt an earlier translation of Thomson's poem The Seasons by Brockes, he was not capable of rendering them back into idiomatic English. There is a certain charm about the Germanic word-order of some of Swieten’s efforts, but it’s too often an amusing charm. “In langen Zügen kriecht/am Boden das Gewürm” is perfectly good German word-order, but “In long dimensions creeps/with sinuous trace the worm” is hardly idiomatic English – it sounds more like the joke German accent of Dennis the Dachshund who used to be Larry the Lamb’s sidekick in Toytown.

Blaming van Swieten is only half the story, however: Thomson’s original work may have inspired the Romantic poets with its proto-Romantic view of nature, but its 18th-century ‘poetic’ diction hardly captures the modern reader as Wordsworth at his best does. This is his account of the summer mid-day:

‘Tis raging noon; and, vertical, the sun
Darts on the head direct his forceful rays.
O’er heaven and earth, far as the ranging eye
Can sweep, a dazzling deluge reigns; and all,
From pole to pole, is undistinguish’d blaze.
In vain the sight, dejected to the ground,
Stoops for relief; thence hot-ascending streams
And keen reflection pain. Deep to the root
Of vegetation parch’d, the cleaving fields
And slippery lawn an arid hue disclose,
Blast fancy’s blooms, and wither even the soul. [Summer, ll.432-442]

To the rescue Alice Parker and Thomas Pyle, who reshaped the text in 1973 into something more accessible to the modern listener; here is their version of the same passage, as sung on this recording:

The midday sun is blazing with mighty power, and from the cloudless sky above this merciless fire attacks the earth.
Over the sweltering countryside, a blinding sea of restless light reflects the dazzling sky.
The earth succumbs to parching drought
Withered flowers, barren meadows, empty brooklets,
All betray the raging heat. [CD1, trs. 9-10]

Though I like the new text, I still prefer the German version, but wouldn’t make that an absolute requirement. If it must be German for you, read no further; go for René Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi (SACD HMC80 1829/30, or mid-price CD HMX296 1829/30) or Gardiner on DG Archiv (431 8182) or, at budget price, Karajan (EMI Gemini 3714822, or excerpts on EMI Encore 574977-2).

I am pleased to see Johannes Somary back in the catalogue with a new recording. He made a number of attractive Handel recordings for Vanguard in the 1960s with the Amor Artis Chorale and the ECO, most of them recently reissued on the Regis and Alto labels and still well worth investigating. I thought the reissue of Semele (Alto ALC2003) particularly worthwhile – see review – so I was interested to see if their new recording would live up to the standard of the Handel.

The Amor Artis name has now migrated from the singers to the orchestra, a small-scale ensemble on period instruments, though their playing is not obsessively authentic. Their performance of the Introduction (track 1) is sprightly, even by comparison with Gardiner, but without sounding rushed; it sets the tone for a generally accomplished and enjoyable performance in which they play no small part.

The accompanied recitative on track 2 briefly introduces the three soloists and establishes the characteristics of each of their voices. As Simon, Jan Opalach has a clear and powerful bass-baritone voice; he enunciates the words extremely carefully - perhaps a trifle too carefully, but the advantage is that one can hear every word. This clarity is a special quality of his singing throughout, especially in the recitatives. In his arias, for example "At dawn the eager plowman goes" (CD1, tr.4), it is less of a virtue. Here he makes a little too heavy weather of "his joyous whistle sounds" for my liking. I began to wonder if his name betokened the fact that he is not a native English speaker but he was, in fact, born in the USA in 1950.

Charles Reid as Lukas has a pleasant, lightish tenor voice. Once again, clear diction is one of the virtues of his performance. Susanne Peck (Hanne) has an attractive soprano voice; she has the least clear diction and hers is the least secure voice, as is apparent in the Trio "Heaven, we pray thee" (CD1, tr.5), where all three voices and chorus are well matched, but the lack of power in her voice is apparent. When she does inject a little more power, her voice tends to be a trifle shrill. I don't want to make too much of any of these criticisms, however; all three soloists sing well enough to make their contributions more than worthwhile.

On paper the chorus looks rather large by comparison with the orchestra, but in actuality this is not a problem. Somary tends to hold them back, presumably for this reason, but the effect is sometimes to make their contribution a little lacking in bounce. Listening to "Come, lovely Spring!" (CD1, tr.3) on a grey day in late February at the tail-end of a dreary winter, I found myself longing for that event more fervently than they seemed to be. Elsewhere, as in "Down-a, down-a, drink it down" (CD2, tr.7) they sound joyful enough.

The recording is good, as is the presentation. There are several things that I might have preferred to be told - there's no potted biography of the soloists, for example, and the timings of individual tracks are not given - but the new libretto is given in full, which is one up on the EMI Beecham set on Gemini. In any event, Beecham's way with Haydn was usually wilful; though he often produced excellent results - I retain his recording of the 'London' symphonies, alongside my preferred Colin Davis set - his version is too different to be comparable with the new Lyrichord. All in all, this enjoyable new recording is the one to have if you prefer the English text and original instruments. Otherwise, for a combination of English text and modern instruments, Colin Davis is still competitive and less expensive (Philips Duo 464 034-2).

Brian Wilson