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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) [150:00]
Dorothea Röschmann (soprano); Michael Schade (tenor); Florian Bosch (bass)
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, Salzburg Festival, July 2013
Region: 0; NTSC; Format 16:9; PCM Stereo DD 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, German
Documentary: Nikolaus Harnoncourt rehearsing Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons [30:00]
EUROARTS DVD 2072678 [150:00+30:00]

The Creation preceded The Seasons in Haydn’s productive late period of genius and has generally been regarded as the greater of the two works. Certainly it tends to be performed and recorded more often. It is therefore an especial pleasure to enjoy this refreshing performance of the later and arguably more interesting work. Not that there is much point in comparing the two. Their structures and characters are very different, with The Seasons longer and more episodic. It also has a slower path towards the climatic final section where the day-to-day concerns of rural life are overtaken by more fundamental questions. As a whole it is wonderfully varied and detailed, a summation of Haydn’s life, and music to which I find myself returning again and again.

The three soloists here are all outstanding in particular in their ability to project and characterise the text. Florian Bosch especially brings to life every phrase he sings. The chorus are also good even if the appearance of several of the singers suggests boredom. This is fortunately belied by the quality of their singing. It is clear from the entertaining if not very enlightening rehearsal documentary that Harnoncourt wants an energetic and characterful performance from the orchestra. What we hear is beautifully played but for much of the time lacks the conviction that they were encouraged to achieve in rehearsal. There is little that I could positively object to but much less than I expected that had the same impact as the best recorded performances that I have heard. I usually find myself going back to John Eliot Gardener or Colin Davis for preference. There are moments of great beauty and some unexpected but usually effective speeds but overall this is not really a memorable performance. This may be due to the size of the Hall and is not helped by a style of filming that all too often seems to be looking at the wrong performers. The final chorus, for instance, is for a double choir who question and answer each other. Before it the choir has moved around the platform to achieve this. Strangely the director then fails to show the choirs questioning and answering each other thus missing one of the composer’s crowning effects.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for some aspects of this disc I will nonetheless return to it for the performances of soloists and choir. It is worth remembering that in the not too far distant days before The Seasons was first recorded a performance of this quality would have seemed an impossible dream. I am sure that in the concert hall this was a memorable occasion and anyone approaching The Seasons for the first time would find it a reliable guide to the supreme genius of the work. There are however alternative audio recordings that give a better impression of the quality of the work.

John Sheppard