STILL let my song a nobler note assume,The 200th anniversary of Haydn's death, which will be observed officially on May 31, has happily been bringing more of his music to our ears, both in recordings and concerts. Along with not one, but two concerts featuring Haydn's baryton trios, the National Symphony Orchestra this week is performing his greatest oratorio, The Creation, and two lovely recordings of his less successful sequel, The Seasons, have come across my desk (the "Spring" portion was performed on Sunday by the Choral Arts Society). This coincides conveniently with the premiere of the work, which occurred in Vienna on April 24, 1801.
And sing th'infusive force of Spring on Man;
When heaven and earth, as if contending, vie
To raise his being, and serene his soul.
James Thomson, The Seasons (1730)
If anything, the musical ingenuity of the wily elder Haydn in The Seasons is even more pronounced than in The Creation, although it is difficult to argue with the common wisdom that the earlier oratorio is the greater one. The culprit that usually catches the blame is the libretto, adapted by the Baron van Swieten from the English poetry of James Thomson, an extended allegorical treatment of the subject (The Seasons, 1730). Van Swieten adapted translations of selected lines as dialogue for three characters -- the older tenant farmer Simon, his daughter Hanne, and the young farmer she falls in love with, Lukas -- who also interact with a chorus of peasant voices. The four episodes are resolutely light in tone (although turning toward God in each final chorus) until the winter arrives, and in the closing numbers the heart of the man in the winter of his life -- like Haydn himself, who struggled for two years to complete the score -- dwells on thoughts of what comes after death.
Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten, C. Oelze, S. Weir, P. Lika, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, R. Norrington ($36.98) [live, 1991]
(re-released on September 30, 2008)
Profil Hänssler PH07076
German (Baron Gottfried van Swieten | English (trans. Neil Jenkins, .PDF file)
Add to the list of worthy competitors this re-released live recording made by Roger Norrington with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which plays with consummate refinement and occasional rustic raucousness (to hilarious effect in both the belches of the contrabassoon and the lusty hunting calls of the horns). The fortepiano that accompanies the recitatives is sparkly and mellow, and the timpani boom boisterously. The choral sound, from the RIAS Kammerchor, is also consistently strong and balanced, and the expected drawbacks of audience noise in a live recording are kept to a well-behaved minimum. The strong point of this recording is the exemplary solo performances, especially the puissant bass of Peter Lika, as Simon, and the sweet-voiced American tenor Scot Weir, as Lukas the farmer. The soprano of Christiane Oelze (Hanne) is overall focused and lush, but marred every once in a while by an over-active vibrato that robs the performance of some clarity.
Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten, Concentus Musicus Wien, N. Harnoncourt ($24.98)
(released on March 17, 2009)
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697 28126 2
Harnoncourt seems to encourage a more refined approach from the players of Concentus Musicus Wien, as well, and the performance is more polished in general, whereas the Norrington recording, shorter by a few minutes, edges close to outright disorder in ensemble cohesion a few times. The Harnoncourt recording also wins in sound quality, captured by Berlin's Teldex Studio, the company that arose from the ashes of Teldec after it was shut down by Warner. The range of dynamic levels is to the advantage of Harnoncourt's more nuanced interpretation, allowing the Arnold Schoenberg Chor to rage out in the summer thunderstorm, for example, the large textures pierced by brass (although the clamor of the timpani, brought forward in the Norrington recording, is missed). In a similar way, the brass in the autumn hunting song seem a little too washed and perfumed by comparison.