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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Jahreszeiten, Hob. XXI.:3 (1799-1801) [129:17]
Christina Landshamer (soprano) - Hanna; Maximilian Schmitt (tenor) – Lukas; Florian Boesch (bass) – Simon
Collegium Vocale Ghent
Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. 10-13 April 2013, Saal Innsbruck, Austria. DDD
German texts and English and French translations included
PHI LPH013 [65:40 + 63:37]

For all its felicities and inspired touches Die Jahreszeiten has never enjoyed quite the same level of popularity as its predecessor, Die Schöpfung. I freely confess that I much prefer Die Schöpfung. I suspect that’s at least in part because the libretto of Die Jahreszeiten, particularly in van Swieten’s pretty arch English translation, strikes me as rather too stylised. Furthermore, despite its charm the work does rather overdo the element of thigh-slapping rusticity at times, especially in ‘Autumn’. Nonetheless, the score teems with invention and Haydnesque joie de vivre while the orchestration is, if anything, even more inventive and vividly illustrative than what we experience in Die Schöpfung ... and that’s saying something. I also wonder if, particularly when it comes to performances by amateur choral societies such as the one to which I belong, Die Jahreszeiten suffers a little because it’s difficult to pigeonhole. There is no doubt that Die Schöpfung is an oratorio but, though the Almighty gets the odd look-in, Die Jahreszeiten is much more secular.
 
Yet when I hear Die Jahreszeiten in such a fresh and spirited performance as this, and sung in German, my reservations melt away. Herreweghe has the benefit of a trio of highly accomplished soloists. I don’t believe I’ve heard Christina Landshamer before but she has a clear, true tone and her voice is admirably flexible. She’s well-suited to this music and I especially enjoyed her beguiling singing in the aria ‘Welch Labung für die Sinne!’ together with its preceding recitative in the ‘Summer’ section. Everything she sings falls pleasingly on the ear. Maximilian Schmitt is excellent in the tenor role and the highlight of his strong all-round contribution is the recitative in ‘Winter’ followed by the important aria ‘Hier steht der Wand’rer nun’ of which he gives a ringing, dramatic account.
 
Florian Boesch is a singer I’ve heard and enjoyed on a good number of occasions, mainly in Lieder and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Early on he epitomises the sturdy husbandman in ‘Schon eilet froh der Ackersmann’ – except that this husbandman has more polish and finesse than one might expect from your average eighteenth-century farmer. Boesch is excellent at the start of ‘Winter’ where in his opening recitative he carries on the chilly depiction of wintry fog that Haydn’s masterly orchestration provided in the Introduction. Later in the same section he brings a Lieder singer’s sensitivity to the aria ‘Erblicke hier, betörter mensch’ that equates Winter with old age.
 
Not only is the solo singing very fine: the contribution of Collegium Vocale Ghent is as excellent as you’d expect from this ensemble. There are 38 singers in the choir and they make a tremendous impact in the last movement of ‘Spring’, ‘Ewiger, mächtiger, gütiger Gott!’. Earlier in the same section they demonstrate the lighter, more charming side of their singing in the lilting ‘Komm, holder Lenz!’ Right at the end of the work they are stirring in the last chorus. They make a fine showing, too, in the hunting chorus, ‘Hört das laute Getön’, memorably described by Michael Steinberg as “Breughel set to music”. However, here even this fine choir is upstaged by the superb pair of rasping horns. It’s not often that individual orchestral players get singled out in reviews but I have to say that Ursula Monberg and Martin Lawrence make the most splendid racket imaginable: it’s enough to make even the most diehard opponent of hunting smile.
 
That horn playing is symptomatic of the magnificent orchestral contribution. Haydn’s orchestration is vivid, colourful and evocative throughout this score and the members of l’ Orchestre des Champs-Elysées seize the opportunities they are offered and clearly relish them to the full. They set out their stall in the Introduction to ‘Spring’ and thereafter continue either to tickle the ear of the listener with delectable sonorities or else they make us sit up with arresting sounds such as those provided by the hard-stick timpani. At the risk of being invidious I must single out the woodwind who, individually and collectively, make a marvellous contribution to this performance.
 
It seems to me that Philippe Herreweghe doesn’t put a foot wrong in this performance. His pacing is often lively – though never excessively so – yet he always gives the music sufficient space in the slower numbers. In addition he’s adept at balancing his forces so that the delights of Haydn’s orchestral writing always register but without distracting from the sung music: the orchestration complements the singing but doesn’t dominate. Herreweghe conveys drama or grandeur at the appropriate moments but above all he puts over Haydn’s sheer sense of fun and well-being. In short, this conductor is fully in tune with the spirit of the music.
 
The recording is splendid, giving us a marvellous aural picture of the performance. The booklet is beautifully produced and contains an excellent note by Charles Johnston. I hope this same team will go on to record Die Schöpfung now that they have given us such a richly enjoyable account of Haydn’s “secular oratorio”.
 
John Quinn