|Site review by Geohominid June 29, 2012
Performance: Sonics (MC):
|Haydn hated his last monumental work, and is reported to have declared that it "broke my back". Working tirelessly on 'The Seasons' from 1798 to 1801, his health was ruined by a debilitating series of ailments. Afterwards, for the remaining 8 years of his life, he had the strength only to pen a few part-songs (Mehrstimmige Lieder), harmonise some Scottish folk songs, and set down two string quartet movements.
Never having good things to say about 'The Seasons', Haydn was reported as vehemently saying that "this Frenchified trash was forced upon me". As the doyen of Haydn scholars, H.C. Robbins Landon has discovered, it was indeed forced upon him, by his friend and self-appointed manager Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Viennese Court Librarian. Swieten was an aloof, domineering, vain Viennese aristocrat, a cold man yet with a great musical perception. A (stiff) composer and poet himself, he was convinced that the enormous success of 'The Creation' oratorio was mainly due to his libretto and advice, and thus considered that a successor piece would further advance his and Haydn's fame.
Swieten's libretto to 'The Seasons' was based upon some poems by James Thomson (1700-1748). They were translated into German in 1745, when they became an important precursor of the Romantic movement in literature and music. Swieten stripped them of everything English which could cloud any Viennese aristocrat's view of the countryside as a place where peasants went about their business of surviving bad weather, being jolly, enjoying harvests, celebrating wine and praising God for keeping them alive for an other cycle. Haydn railed against Swieten's completed text, storming about "that sort ... of vulgar Frenchified trash" and slandered van Swieten to his friends and acquaintances. "Croaking frogs", he snorted, "thatís the sort of thing Grétry did".
Swieten also made the English translation of his libretto for inclusion in the published score. This is obscure, archaic and almost comical in its dreadfulness. Perhaps wisely, Ars Produktion do not include any translation of the German text in the booklet for this disc; no doubt a good new translation would prove expensive.
Despite these travails, Haydn produced an outstanding final masterpiece, bringing together all his compositional and dramatic skills with a fluid ease which is breathtaking, especially for a man in his '70s. He had to endure Swieten's constant flow of instructions about exactly what to put where (the Baron even wrote some tunes for Haydn to use). As a courteous and generous man, Haydn obeyed Swieten's obsessive instructions as best as he could, whilst fuming both inwardly and outwardly.
'The Seasons' has a distinguished recording history, with full-scale modern orchestras and large choirs being the norm (Karajan comes to mind). In recent years, the HIP movement has produced several notable period instrument versions (Gardiner, Jacobs and an HIP-rich modern instrument version with Schuldt-Jensen for Naxos, regarded as the definitive bargain version). Jacobs' Seasons (Haydn: The Seasons - Jacobs) with the Freiberg Baroque Orchestra appears in the Gramophone Classical Music Guide as a 'Diamond' entry, and splendid it is, caparisoned with superb SA-CD sonics.
Bruno Weil's 'Seasons' comes quite close in scale and execution to Jacobs', with his magnificent period band Cappella Coloniensis, as my prior re-playing of the Jacob discs revealed. There is, however, one major difference. Weil uses the Bavarian Töltz Boys Choir, who, to my ears, sing with all the range and beauty of a traditional choir but arguably with more clarity and poignancy. Their precision, excellent diction and transparency of parts in complex choral climaxes bring a great deal to this performance, just as their background in sacred music provides a greater sense of spirituality than Jacobs' performance perhaps manages. The men in particular have great strength of tone and bring much character to their singing. In turn, the boy trebles and altos seem to enjoy their section marked by Haydn as "Girls and young women" in Section 2, the Chorus of Land-folks. They are also required to emulate "A Youth Choir" in No. 8, Freudenlied; something which a traditional mixed choir might have problems with.
While perhaps not quite a match with Jacobs' soloists, Weil's trio are quite young-voiced and convincing in their roles as peasant representatives. Soprano Sybilla Rubens (who also features in the Naxos recording mentioned above) is agile, expressive and never matronly. Tenor Jan Kobow's role as Lucas means he often has to play the amorous lad, which he does ardently, while intelligently providing drama in his recitatives. Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachman is authoritative as Simon, who is often given philosophical material; he has a good strong, clear voice without trace of hollowness. Kobo and Müller-Brachman also featured in Spering's very good 'The Creation' for Naxos. Weil's group of soloists show considerable commitment to the dramatic and symbolic elements of the work as a whole, rather than just exhibiting mere vocal skills.
Bruno Weil is a seasoned Haydn interpreter, his recordings with other period orchestras are rightly acclaimed, and his set of the London Symphonies with Cappella Coloniensis (Haydn: London Symphonies Vol. 1 - Bruno Weil, Haydn: London Symphonies Vol. 2 - Bruno Weil) was very fine. Weil's approach to 'The Seasons' is not quite as earthy as Jacobs', the Cappella Coloniensis sound being more urbanely classical, but opportunities for folksy humour or lilting rhythms are never passed by. Like Jacobs, Weil also makes us slyly aware of Haydn's joke of parading the tune from the slow movement of his Surprise Symphony in No. 4, Simon's aria, and he also propels the several choral fugues along with flexible rhythms and joyous feeling from both chorus and orchestra, where these strenuous contrapuntal sections can plod or drag..
And the orchestra itself is perhaps the real star of these discs; flawless playing by soloists and ensembles alike. Cappella Coloniensis (founded as a period instrument orchestra in 1957) handle their old or replica instruments as if they had always been completely familiar with them. Listen to the pair of valveless horns in No. 26, "Hark the sound of the horn", play with the vigour of proud hunters (including a hair-raising trill a third apart). They are joined by the men of the choir in a stag hunt episode quite soaked in testosterone. Following Haydn's miraculous orchestrations, the band provide a vivid sound iconography of the Seasons and a small bestiary to boot. The full orchestra, after an inspiring fugue at the end of the oratorio, leave us in a blaze of C major which could well have come from a very much larger band.
'The Seasons' was recorded in concert (21-3-10) in the Alfred Krupp Hall of the Essen Philharmonie to mark the end of Weil's Haydn series with the orchestra, and thus the musicians were imbued with a sense of occasion. The engineer's seemingly minimal microphone array has produced very satisfying sound indeed, with a remarkably translucent balance between choir and orchestra, so that neither are overwhelmed by the other and with clean textures are apparent from top to bottom. The soloists are placed between the orchestra and the chorus, not spot miked and so they in the same acoustic space as the other musicians, giving concert realism. Very few tiny clues might suggest the presence of an audience to a listener at home. Period drums are crisp, the Hunter's gun firing is startling and there is a really solid deep bass line to build the performance upon.
The Ars booklet is well laid out and easy to access; unusually the German text is placed first, which is quite ergonomic, notated with section numbers and subheadings in red, very easy to follow. The lack of English translation has been mentioned above, but there useful notes about the music's context and all the biographical material is in German and English. There are several session photos which confirm the positioning of all the orchestral instruments and personnel gleaned from the sonics.
While there may be some Live concert fluffs or pitch problems, I was far too absorbed in the impact of the performance to notice them. It would be very difficult to have to choose between Weil and Jacobs for their respective Seasons, although the chorus type might be an issue for some listeners. Having both would be the answer. Both have cogency, rustic humour, colourful sounds, and expressive depth. They do justice to Haydn's last masterpiece, for which he struggled so hard.
Copyright © 2012 John Miller and SA-CD.net