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Hyperion Records

LSO0708 - Haydn: The seasons
Recording details: June 2010
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: June 2011
Total duration: 128 minutes 35 seconds

With the LSO on prime form … [Sir Colin Davis] is as responsive as ever both to the zest and humour of this most joyous of oratorios, and to the symphonic / contrapuntal grandeur of movements like the final chorus of Spring ... this exhilarating and affectionate LSO performance can be recommended to anyone wanting The Seasons in German, performed with modern instruments on the grand scale we know Haydn relished' (Gramophone)

'Colin Davis is alive to every nuance of Haydn’s late masterpiece. The conductor’s lightness of touch allows the music to flow like quicksilver … the soloists are also on beguiling form … Sir Colin, revelling in his glorious Indian summer with the LSO, points heavenwards in this visionary reading of Haydn’s late masterpiece' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Sir Colin Davis’s 1969 recording of this oratorio for Philips was considered a landmark, so it’s interesting that, 40 years on, he has revisited it with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Haydn produced a work of tumbling invention and touching humanity that transcends the bucolic text, and Davis directs with evident relish. Soloists Miah Persson, Jeremy Ovenden and Andrew Foster-Williams bring the changing seasons to vivid life and the LSO plays with typical grace and superb colour from the woodwinds' (Yorkshire Post)

The seasons

Following the success of Die Schöpfung (The Creation), which had swiftly gained popularity throughout Europe, Haydn’s librettist Baron Gottfried van Swieten suggested another project, based on James Thomson’s pastoral epic, The Seasons. One of Haydn’s last major works, Die Jahreszeiten depicts the yearly cycle of life in the countryside through the eyes of three peasants, providing us with music of thrilling vitality and creativity.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
After the triumph of The Creation, the librettist, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, was quick to propose another oratorio text to Haydn, again with a British source: an adaptation of James Thomson’s famous pastoral epic The Seasons, published in 1730. Jettisoning most of Thomson’s moralising, Van Swieten shifted the scene to Haydn’s own Burgenland, complete with wine harvest, inserted a couple of popular German poems to jolly up Winter (the spinning song, and Hanne’s quasi-folk tale), and in a spirit of Enlightenment optimism omitted tragic details such as the wanderer frozen to death in a snowstorm.

The self-opinionated Baron was no poet. Time and again he dulled and flattened Thomson’s imagery, compounding the problem with the English ‘back-translation’ of his German text (The Seasons was actually published with words in German, English and French). But, working closely with the composer, he was often shrewd in his choice of which details to include and which to omit. In many ways the libretto was right up Haydn’s street: akin to The Creation in its celebration of an idyllic, divinely ordered world, yet embracing an even wider range, from the stag hunt and the wine harvest to paeans of praise to the Almighty.

Haydn, though, worked on The Seasons with increasing reluctance, protesting that he was too weary and that the libretto was banal by comparison with The Creation. Still smarting at attacks on The Creation’s animal imitations, he derided the frogs and crickets in Summer, so delightful to us, as ‘Frenchified trash’; and he summed up the relative merits of the two oratorios by remarking that while the solo voices in The Creation were those of angels, in The Seasons ‘only [the peasant] Simon speaks’.

Yet for all Haydn’s strictures, Van Swieten’s text gave him plenty to fire his imagination; and he responded with music of unquenchable vitality and freshness of observation. First heard in the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna on 24 April 1801 ‘with the same unanimous approval as The Creation’ (Haydn’s words), The Seasons is a joyous evocation of the world in which the composer, a master-wheelwright’s son, had grown up. Essentially a series of lovingly painted frescoes, this least solemn of oratorios fuses pastoral innocence with the most sophisticated harmonic and orchestral language. Indeed, like The Magic Flute, another great celebration of Enlightenment values, The Seasons effortlessly incorporates a wide array of styles, from Viennese Singspiel to exhilarating fugal choruses that reflect Haydn’s encounter with Handel’s music in London.

Each of the four ‘cantatas’ that make up The Seasons opens with an orchestral tone poem. The splendid G minor introduction ‘depicts the passage from winter to spring’, the former evoked in blustery, densely contrapuntal music, the latter in airy exchanges between violins and wind. In the recapitulation Haydn omits this ‘spring’ music and sweeps directly into the recitative for the peasants: Simon (bass), Lukas (tenor) and Simon’s daughter Hanne (soprano). Tonal resolution only comes with the lilting G major chorus, ‘Komm, holder Lenz’.

In the jaunty ploughman’s song – one of the oratorio’s instant hits – Haydn resisted van Swieten’s attempts to get him to include a tune from a popular German opera and instead had Simon whistle the famous melody from his Surprise Symphony. Two solo-choral complexes make up the second half of Spring. The Prayer ‘Sei nun gnädig’ begins with serene, hymnic melody and ends with a fervent fugue that virtually quotes the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ from Mozart’s Requiem – the first of several Mozartian reminiscences in The Seasons. The ‘popular’ and the ‘sublime’ are directly juxtaposed in the last number of Spring. This opens in A major with a ‘Song of Joy’ in quasi-folk vein, enlivened by charming illustrative touches. After working its way to D major, the music seems to peter out. Then, following a pause, Haydn introduces a series of massive fanfares in the remote key of B flat. After a lyrical solo trio, dramatically interrupted by more choral cries, Spring closes with a majestic fugue that, as so often in Haydn’s fugal choruses, becomes more symphonic and less strictly contrapuntal as it proceeds.

Summer falls into two large, virtually continuous sections. The first moves from the atmospheric orchestral portrayal of ‘the meek-eyed morn’, via the oboe-as-cockerel and Simon’s bucolic aria with horn (a foretaste here of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), to an exhilarating chorus in praise of the sun that culminates in a riot of fugal laughter.

In the second part of Summer, drought and torpor, graphically evoked in Lukas’s recitative and cavatina, find relief in Hanne’s enchanting woodland scene: first in a pictorial recitative, then in a two-section aria, beginning as a languorous duet for soprano and oboe and ending with ecstatic coloratura flourishes. The scene darkens in a baleful recitative, punctured by distant thunder. Then, with forked lightning on the flute, the tempest erupts. In this, the first great Romantic picture-in-sound of the warring elements, Haydn creates a musical counterpart to the cataclysmic storms that Turner would depict a quarter of a century later. After a fugue on a drooping chromatic subject, the tempest recedes amid desultory lightning flashes; and normal rustic life resumes in the final trio and chorus, opening with Haydn’s ‘Frenchified trash’ (bellowing cattle, croaking frogs and the like) and closing with a graceful chorus of villagers that transmutes the storm’s tremolandos into drowsy murmurs.

Following the minuet-like introduction to Autumn, the trio and chorus in praise of industry is Haydn’s supreme triumph over a prosaic text: a noble, powerfully organised movement initiated by Simon alone, with chuckling woodwind commentaries, and culminating in a choral fugue that climaxes in a stunning harmonic ‘purple patch’. The tension then relaxes with the love duet that contains a soulful central Adagio before ending, like the Adam and Eve duet in The Creation, as a sprightly contredanse.

The hunting scenes that follow are portrayed with relish by Haydn, an enthusiastic huntsman himself in earlier days. After the bird shoot, recounted in a Baroque-style bass aria with burbling bassoon obbligato, and the hare-coursing, comes the most spectacular of all hunting choruses, based on traditional hunting calls and tracing an audacious tonal journey from D major to E flat. Yet Haydn manages to cap even this thrilling genre scene in the increasingly riotous wine harvest, memorably described by the German critic Karl Schumann as ‘a feast of Bacchus in the Burgenland, painted by a musical Breughel’.

At the furthest extreme from this C major revelry is the depiction of ‘thick fogs’ that opens Winter, a piece of near-impressionistic tone-painting to set alongside ‘Chaos’ from The Creation. The season’s grim aspects are further explored in Jane’s Cavatina, and the opening of the tenor aria, with its vivid portrayal of the lost wanderer’s mounting anxiety. But, unlike Thomson’s doomed traveller, van Swieten’s wanderer finds refuge in a tavern in which the villagers cheerfully pursue their winter tasks: a cue for a picturesque spinning scene, and Hanne’s sly tale of seduction outwitted.

In the valedictory bass aria ‘Erblicke hier, betörter Mensch’, where the declining year becomes an allegory for old age, Haydn poignantly recalls the slow movement of Mozart’s Symphony No 40. At the end the music dissolves in insubstantial woodwind chords. ‘Nur Tugend bleibt’ – only virtue remains – asserts Simon in his new role of philosopher, a notion taken up and expanded in the final trio and double chorus. There are distinct Masonic overtones here, with antiphonal passages for the two choirs that recall the dialogue between Tamino and the Old Priest in The Magic Flute. Ignoring van Swieten’s request for an eight-part choral fugue, Haydn celebrates the certainty of salvation in a magnificently rugged four-part fugue that builds to a resplendent homophonic climax, replete with proto-Wagnerian brass fanfares, at the vision of ‘the holy hill of heavenly bliss’.

Richard Wigmore © 2010

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