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More HIP Recordings of Haydn's Seasons

STILL let my song a nobler note assume,
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)
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.

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.

available at Amazon
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

Online libretto:
German (Baron Gottfried van Swieten | English (trans. Neil Jenkins, .PDF file)
Given my proclivities for historically informed performance (HIP) practice, it is no surprise to find me recommending recordings of that sort for this work, of which there are several. From the 1990s, the sets by John Eliot Gardiner (1990, Archiv -- English Baroque Soloists/ Monteverdi Choir, $42.98) and Helmuth Rilling (1992, Hänssler Classic -- Stuttgart Bach Collegium / Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, $38.98) are both fine, if a little pricey. One of the earliest recordings on historical instruments, conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken (Virgin Classics Veritas -- La Petite Bande, $10.98) has been discounted to a price that makes it an absolute steal. The version to beat is the most recent, a stylish recording by René Jacobs (2004, Harmonia Mundi -- Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus, $30.98), also discounted in price for its 2008 re-release. Harmonia Mundi has announced that Jacobs will release a new recording of Die Schöpfung, with the same forces, this fall.

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.


available at Amazon
Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten, Concentus Musicus Wien, N. Harnoncourt
(released on March 17, 2009)
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697 28126 2
Nikolaus Harnoncourt has also just released a live recording, made more recently and recorded over several performances in the summer of 2007. What Harnoncourt has is a carefully balanced trio of solo voices -- Christian Gerhaher, Genia Kühmeier, Werner Güra -- all with native pronunciation of German (a fault of the Norrington recording's tenor). As a group they are superb, and they are all singers highly admired here at Ionarts, but by comparison to the heft from Norrington's male soloists especially, one might trade some of the subtlety for a little more grit. Gerhaher's baritone has more buzz than gravitas at a high wattage, and Güra's high notes can lack a certain resolute ping. The upper hand clearly goes to Kühmeier, however, and the Austrian soprano's superlative performance here, along with a nicely discounted price for the set, makes this version very competitive with Jacobs (whose soprano, Marlis Petersen, is the weak link), especially since Jacobs also has Werner Güra as his tenor.

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.


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