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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Jahreszeiten
Marlis Petersen (soprano); Werner Güra (tenor); Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
RIAS Kammerchor
Freiburger Barockorchester/René Jacobs
rec. August 2003, Innsbruck Congress
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 971829.30 [62:28 + 62:38]

It’s hard to imagine that this recording is more than ten years old, so freshly minted and original it still sounds. Its originality and its refusal to accept the Haydn performance tradition at face value makes the music leap out of the speakers, and brings out the best in everyone concerned. Jacobs makes this Seasons even more dramatically involving than his The Creation — which came six years later. He embraces every opportunity to create an effect, even non-musical ones at times, such as the gun-shot that accompanies the foul-hunt in Autumn. There are plenty of other instrumental highlights, such as the cheeky cock-crow on the oboe in the introduction to Summer, the flutes to depict the peace of the shady glade, or the dry, fidgety strings to suggest the buzzing insect. The hunting scene in Autumn is properly raucous, with rollicking horns and badly behaved trombones to add to the mix. Jacobs even has his chorus sing in a more ungainly way to add to the impression of bagpipers, fiddles and a hurdy-gurdy.
The playing of the Freiburgers is consummately skilful throughout, and in general there is a slightly more rough-round-the-edges quality to their sound, as if to set this earthy, physical oratorio apart from its more spiritual, cerebral predecessor. At the helm, Jacobs gives the whole thing a more folksy feel in general, but he is capable of summoning hymnic smoothness as and when he needs to. You can hear this in the magnificent Freudenlied that ends Spring or, most triumphantly of all, in the great hymn that finishes the whole work.
The chorus buy into Jacobs’ vision with total conviction, and sing with beauty or rawness as required. The soloists, too are superb. Marlis Petersen sings with delightful sweetness throughout, making a sound of beautiful simplicity that fits perfectly with the innocent naivety of Haydn’s vision. Werner Güra sounds great, too. He uses his honeyed tones to lend the proceedings a touch of class, pepped up by his impeccable diction which has, of course, been fostered by his career on the lieder stage. Dietrich Henschel is also marvellous, and saves his best for last when he sings of the futility of man’s existence without God. This oratorio calls for an unusual number of duets and trios, and when the singers are of this quality that makes every one a gem.
I have said several times before that I am by no means an uncritical admirer of René Jacobs, but this recording swept away my doubts. He brought me into his vision quickly and won me over with his dramatic effects so as to give a Seasons that is probably the most exciting and interesting on disc.
Simon Thompson