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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seasons (1801) [133.08]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (Tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (Bass-baritone), Gabrieli Consort, National Forum of Music Choir, Wrocław Baroque Orchestra, Gabrieli Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland, June 2016, notes and libretto in English and Polish

The first performance of The Seasons was given on 24th April 1801 before an invited audience at the Vienna palace of Prince Johann Joseph Nepomuk Schwarzenberg. This had been the location for the premiere of The Creation three years earlier. Georg August Griesinger, Haydn’s first biographer, reported in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: "From the beginning to the end, the spirit is swept along by emotions that range from the commonplace to the most sublime." Emperor Francis II ordered performances at the Hofburg, giving the Empress Maria Theresa a chance to sing one of the solo soprano parts. The public premiere of The Seasons was given at the Redoutensaal on 29th May as a benefit concert for Haydn.

All this nicely conceals the doubts the composer himself had during the composition of his masterwork. The text was proposed by Baron van Swieten in the wake of the huge success of The Creation. Derived from Thompson's English pastoral epic, published in 1730, it was written by van Swieten, who was, by all accounts, no poet or librettist. He took out anything un-Enlightenment, like the wanderer freezing to death in the Winter snowstorm, and removed a lot of Thompson's best imagery. He wrote his version in German and then retranslated it into inadequate English ready for planned publication as a trilingual text, English, French and German, designed to maximise sales. The result, in English at least, was inelegant to say the least. In addition Haydn was unenthusiastic about the entire plan and objected to writing "Frenchified trash" for the croaking frogs and chirping crickets in Summer and complained about setting 'industry' to music, in Autumn. A true professional, Haydn was nonetheless inspired to some of his finest music, combining the popular with the symphonic and utilising all he had learned about harmony, orchestration and counterpoint in a lifetime of composition. In The Seasons Haydn anticipates nascent German Romanticism and foreshadows works like Der Freischütz and even The Flying Dutchman.

Paul McCreesh admits that the English version of The Seasons is virtually unsingable as it has come down to us, so this recording uses his own reworking of the libretto, using the German words as the basis. McCreesh writes: "This translation follows the German very closely on the whole, but I have occasionally been freer where more idiomatic English seems to preserve the spirit of Thompson's original." The recitatives have also been rewritten to, as he puts it, "improve the grammar and rhetoric required by English." His essay and that of Dr Mark Berry of Royal Holloway, University of London, must be read and are significant contributions to the value of this excellent and beautifully packaged set.

What of the performance? As can be seen above, the forces are very large, an accurate reflection of the early Viennese performances. The orchestra numbers well over a hundred (!) and the chorus sixty or more. Haydn would have been thrilled, one suspects, to hear such precision from so large a group. He would also have been amazed that his musicians consist mostly of English and Polish performers. It was apparently one of the many challenging aspects of getting such a group to this high level of excellence, that the two orchestras, the Gabrieli Players and the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra, had different playing styles. Gabrieli Players' Leader, Catherine Martin, told me that whilst the whole recording exercise was enormous fun to do, it was a challenge to get disparate string players to play the same way. Apparently, she explained, every aspect of both the instrument, accessories like chin-rests and the manner of playing, affects the sound. Since she is a self-confessed perfectionist, as a leader she had to work hard on such matters, along with Jarosław Theil, her Polish counterpart. From the very opening of this splendid account it is clear that all the effort paid off. The loud thwacks from the timpani force one to sit up and pay close attention to two and a quarter hours of great Haydn.

The singers are an unmitigated pleasure to hear. Carolyn Sampson proves yet again what a marvellous musician she is with her clear and very pure-toned singing. Both Jeremy Ovenden and Andrew Foster-Williams match her in clarity and diction, not to mention beautiful sound. The chorus sing with gusto as well as accuracy making some of the big moments really very impressive. Talking of big moments, there are ten horns, six trumpets and five trombones - and the only piccolo in Haydn's output. Need one say more! This is all helped along by the excellent recording team from Classic Sound. What a pity it was not issued on SACD, but I guess one can't have everything. (There is at least one version on SACD, sung in German - René Jacobs, Harmonia Mundi - so one can buy that as well). Top marks for Paul McCreesh's latest achievement in large-scale Haydn performance.

Dave Billinge

Previous reviews: John Quinn (Recording of the Month) ~ Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)



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