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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Seasons, Hob. XXI:3 (1801) [133:08]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Jeremy Ovenden (tenor); Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone); Gabrieli Consort and Players; National Forum of Music Choir; Wrocław Baroque Orchestra/Paul McCreesh
English text and Polish translation included
rec. 20-23 June 2016, National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD480 [67:42 + 65:26]

Between 2006 and 2012 Paul McCreesh was the Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival, Wrocław and a very fruitful Anglo-Polish relationship developed in which the Gabrieli Consort and Players were heavily involved. Among the tangible benefits were a number of exciting recordings, including the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts (review), Mendelssohn’s Elijah (review) and Britten’s War Requiem (review). I had wondered if the collaboration would cease once McCreesh’s formal appointment in Wrocław came to an end but this recording, made just last year (2016), suggests that such may not be the case.

Back in 2008 I gave a very warm welcome to Paul McCreesh’s recording of Creation. I began my review with the statement “This is Creation on a Grand Scale”. Though the forces involved are less numerous this time the same description might well apply to this new recording of The Seasons.

The booklet essay, which is excellent, is by my Seen and Heard International colleague, Dr Mark Berry. He begins his notes thus: “If Haydn, for posterity, has suffered for not having been Mozart, The Seasons has suffered similarly for not having been The Creation.” That’s a very pertinent statement which set me wondering why this should be so. Listening to this sparkling performance made me feel that the relative neglect of The Seasons could surely not be a verdict on the music itself – or if it were then that verdict is grossly unfair because The Seasons is crammed full of Haydn at his witty and inventive best. I suspect more prosaic factors may be at work.

For one thing, The Seasons is a bit longer than Creation: McCreesh’s recording of the latter plays for a few seconds short of 119:00 compared with 133:08 for The Seasons. Though professional performances are very important what particularly sustains a choral work in the repertoire is the willingness of amateur choral societies to programme it. The fact that The Seasons takes over two hours to perform may deter choirs with an understandable eye on the box office, not least because, with a few exceptions the appetite of the public for full-length oratorios seems to have waned over the last fifty years or so. There’s another, related consideration, I think. The chorus has less to do in The Seasons than is the case in the sister oratorio – for the choir there’s a lot of sitting around listening to the soloists strut their stuff. Furthermore, although the choruses in The Seasons are very fine, those in Creation are simply magnificent. All this may go some way towards explaining why performances of The Seasons aren’t as frequent as the quality of the music would justify. I looked back in my records and I discovered that in the last thirty years or so I’ve sung in just two performances of The Seasons but in the same period I’ve sung Creation nine times. Furthermore, it’s very rare that I see an announcement for a performance of The Seasons, whether amateur or professional. This recording reminds us what we are missing.

I wonder if there’s another factor at work, at least in the English-speaking world. The English translation of The Seasons, or at least the one in the Novello edition which is the one in widest circulation, I believe, could be described as dated, to put it kindly. As we shall see, that’s not the translation used in this performance, thank goodness, but the stilted language that’s in common currency may well be a deterrent to English-speaking choirs. Perhaps that’s why both the recordings that I own – those by Sir John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv 431 8182) and Philippe Herreweghe (review) - are actually recordings of Die Jahreszeiten in which one doesn’t have to worry about the English words.

As I mentioned, for this new recording Paul McCreesh uses his own performing edition of the score. The main impact of this, for the listener, is that the English text is not at all like what we are accustomed to hearing. On comparing the McCreesh text with the words in my Novello score as I listened I came to the unhesitating conclusion that his new text is vastly preferable. I should hasten to add, however, that there is no gratuitous modernisation of the words; what we hear fits completely with the spirit not only of the original text but equally with the spirit of Haydn’s music. McCreesh say in a note that, for the most part, in making his translation he has followed the standard German text as closely as possible. The recitatives have been thoroughly rewritten though he has remained faithful to Haydn’s vocal lines and harmonies.

It’s in the orchestral forces that Paul McCreesh gives us the work on a grand scale. Much of the material for performances that Haydn himself directed at the Tonkünstler Society in Vienna has survived and so McCreesh has sought to reconstruct a performance on that scale. However, he has concluded, correctly, I’m sure, that it would be quite wrong to accompany soloists with very large forces. So, he’s adopted an approach similar to what he did in his recording of Elijah. He’s used a concertino orchestra for the accompanied recitatives and arias – or songs, as they’re described in the score – deploying a much larger ripieno ensemble for the larger scale numbers, mainly the choruses. The booklet includes a full orchestra list, showing the division between concertino and ripieno groups. So, for example, the core group of 12 first violins swells to 18 when the ripieno players join in. In the woodwind choir the basic forces consist of a pair of each instrument but a further four ripienists in each section are held in reserve. Only two horns are needed for the concertino but no fewer than eight colleagues weigh in during the ripieno sections: in the hunting chorus in ‘Autumn’ the effect of the extra horns is akin to the arrival of the cavalry. McCreesh believes this is the first time a recording of The Seasons has attempted to reconstruct “big band” Haydn forces; the results are certainly ear-opening.

The Anglo-Polish choir numbers 71 (20/17/17/17) and the singers make a fine contribution. They impart a pleasing lilt to ‘Come, gentle Spring’, aided by the conductor’s ideal tempo. At the end of ‘Spring’ the fugal chorus, ‘Hymns of praise we sing to thee’ is sturdy yet buoyant; the choir makes the music sound properly joyful. At the opening of ‘Summer’ McCreesh achieves a majestic sunrise and then the choir plays its full part in the jubilant paean that follows. In ‘Autumn’ the hunting chorus is exhilarating. The choir’s singing is full of vitality but it’s the magnificently brazen sound of the horns that really draws the ear. There’s a picture in the booklet of the horn section standing up and playing with their bells raised and I’ve no doubt that the instruments’ splendid sound inspired the choir. This really conveys the thrill of the chase.

The soloists make a fine team. All do very well in their recitatives – I like for example, Jeremy Ovenden’s word painting in his portion of the number ‘The village lads and lasses haste …’ (‘Summer’). Much later, in ‘Winter’ the tenor has quite a substantial section beginning with a recitative (’The lake lies lock’d in frosty grip’) in which he depicts most imaginatively the chilled landscape. Then, in the following aria, ‘The wand’rer stands perplex’d’ he does very well indeed, first in the dramatic, turbulent music at the start of the piece and then in the reassuringly warmer music as Haydn takes his traveller to a house offering refuge from the icy climate.

I was mildly perturbed when I heard Andrew Foster-Williams’ very first recitative which suggested that he might be prone to unwanted exaggeration but during the rest of the work he manages to characterise very well without any excess. Like Ovenden he possesses a voice that gave me a lot of pleasure. I enjoyed his performance in the air ‘The wakeful herdsman’ (‘Summer’) and, indeed, throughout the performance his singing is stylish and enjoyable. Like his two colleagues, his diction is excellent at all times.

Despite the excellence of the two male soloists the standout performance comes from Carolyn Sampson. Her clear, gleaming soprano is ideally suited to this music and is a consistent source of delight. The cautionary tale ‘A noble squire, of great renown’ (‘Winter’) is not my favourite part of the oratorio but Miss Sampson is a most engaging storyteller. Even if you know what the “punchline” is going to be she draws the listener into the story really well. Much earlier on, in ‘Spring’ she and Ovenden combine wonderfully in the charming, innocent duet, ‘O, what charming sights delight us’. Here, Haydn indulges a sense of wide-eyed wonder at the prospect of new Spring life and these singers convey that beautifully. In ‘Summer’ Carolyn Sampson is outstanding in the aria ‘How refreshing to the senses’ – arguably the oratorio’s equivalent to ‘On mighty pens’. At every turn Miss Sampson’s singing delights the listener.

In ‘How refreshing to the senses’ Carolyn Sampson is partnered by a wonderful oboe soloist and the work of that player (Antoine Torunczyk, I presume) epitomises the skill and flair, both individually and collectively, of the orchestra. This is a score that abounds in imaginative, felicitous details of orchestration and everything is superbly delivered here. At the very start of the overture to ‘Spring’ the listener’s attention is grabbed by the series of great drum-strokes and having thus hooked you McCreesh’s gifted players never let you go, whether it be the thrilling horns I mentioned earlier or the delectable burbling woodwind in ‘Thus Nature rewards our toil’ (‘Autumn’). Incidentally, some members of the choir make an instrumental contribution too. At the end of the lusty drinking chorus with which ‘Autumn’ concludes, Haydn cued percussion but didn’t write any parts. McCreesh has several members of the choir rattling tambourines at this point. They do so to excellent effect: Haydn knew how to party.

That’s just one small detail that sums up Paul McCreesh’s dedication to The Seasons. I don’t know how much time he expended on his performing edition but apparently he began work in 2011 and undertook a considerable amount of revision immediately prior to this recording five years later. The work has paid off because the edition seems to me to be a great success. That said, it’s through his conducting that McCreesh really brings Haydn’s music to life. He secures a vivid, stylish and colourful performance. Above all, he ensures this great score is fun to listen to and, I imagine, fun to perform under his direction.

It remains only to say that the recorded sound is excellent, as is the documentation.

This release celebrates one or two notable milestones. The recording was made in 2016, the year in which the Wratislavia Cantans Festival celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The release is one of the first by Signum Classics in 2017, twenty years after the label was established in 1997. I’d say that both anniversaries have been marked in great style. This recording is a signal achievement and I hope there will be more joint Anglo-Polish recordings from this source in the future.

John Quinn



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