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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seasons (sung in English)
Carolyn Sampson (sop)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bar)
National Forum of Music Choir
Wrocław Baroque Orchestra
Gabrieli Consort and Players
rec. Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland, 20-23 June 2016
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD480 [67:42 + 65:26]

So magnificent has been their pedigree so far that I now get really excited about a new one of Paul McCreesh’s Wrocław recordings on Signum.  As with his earlier recording of Elijah (review), McCreesh presents Haydn’s great, final oratorio on the grandest of scales, with a huge orchestra and chorus.  If this might appear to go against period orthodoxy then McCreesh is quick to point out that similarly largescale performances were not uncommon in Haydn’s Vienna, and that we lose something if we exclude them from our contemporary aural perspective. So he serves up something unashamedly largescale, which gives you a whole new kind of authenticity and which I think works extremely well.  It’s a sign of his musical (and historical) intelligence, however, that he doesn't adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, but instead divides his forces into different sized concertino and ripieno forces which he deploys as the scale of the music requires.

The scale itself is, in fact, a major benefit because the many instrumentalists play on period instruments, but do so with such assuredness and skill that there is never a hint of danger anything being swamped or lost.  In fact, the first thing that strikes you in the orchestral introduction is the beautifully juicy sound as the strings burst into vigorous life.  You can sense that it’s a big band, but there's still great energy, transparency and bounce to it.  The Winter storms that open the work sound genuinely destructive with well-placed lightning flashes, and instrumental details such as the transverse flutes and the (utterly marvellous) trombones make a huge difference.  That instrumental colour also add real spice to the sultry atmosphere that opens Summer, with a very characterful solo oboe and a gloriously uplifting solo horn, and the contrabassoon in that section’s concluding movement has to be heard to be believed!  The huge horn section revel in being let off the leash in the hunt scene of Autumn, as do the percussion at the end of the drinking song.

The cumulative effect is most powerfully felt in the chorus’ line “Wonderful, bountiful, infinite God” in the final number of Spring.  It’s a thrilling climax that really hits home magnificently, and the sunrise chorus of Summer has a similar effect as, predictably, does the same section’s storm which seems to carry real threat with its braying brass and raucous winds, together with the perpetually scurrying strings.  The final hymn, for once, feels like a proper culmination rather than something tacked on for some tokenistic theology, and that’s every bit as much down to McCreesh’s overall vision for the work.

The chorus sound excellent throughout.  They are just the right size for what McCreesh is trying to do, and their beautifully rounded tone is a perpetual treat.  As a bonus, their diction is consistently marvellous, and you would never guess that such a large proportion of them aren’t native English speakers.

The soloists are strong too, though Andrew Foster-Williams sounds unusually declamatory in this context, almost craggy in places so that the hunt scene of Autumn sounds really rather serious. That suits the “moral” of the ending very well, though it makes some of the earlier numbers a little humourless.

Jeremy Ovenden makes a warmer, more honeyed contrast, sounding utterly beguiling in his languish cavatina “Exhausted Nature” in Summer.  He also evokes pleasing jocularity in Autumn’s “Fine ladies of the town” and he depicts the lost Winter traveller with brilliant narrative skill. Carolyn Sampson sings with her typical angelic radiance, and she brings great beauty and purity to her line, most obviously in “How refreshing to the senses” in Summer, while letting her hair down a little for Winter’s spinning song.

These projects are clearly labours of love for Paul McCreesh.  He pours his time, energy and affection into them, and the results are always worth hearing.  His vision for this piece is perfectly developed and beautifully judged, sensing the ebb and flow of the work very well, and showing just the right sense of when to relax and when to throw on a few extra volts.

It feels almost secondary to remark that for an Anglophone audience there is a special pleasure in hearing The Seasons sung in English, something that is relatively common for its sister oratorio, The Creation, but much rarer for this one, in my experience.  In fact, they sing a text that McCreesh himself has prepared so as to improve the problems that arrived in the nineteenth century with the back-translation of the original German.   So excellent are this recording’s virtues that, to my mind, it jumps to the top if you want an English language performance, and it even runs close the great German language recordings, most notably the wonderful version by Rene Jacobs (review). Put his small scale German performance next to McCreesh’s large scale English one, and you’ll get a pretty much perfect pairing of insights into Haydn’s last expansive masterpiece.  

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)



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