Die Jahreszeiten – Oratorio to a text by Baron van Swieten adapted and translated from James Thomson’s original [sung in German]
Miah Persson (soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) & Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded 27 June 2010 in Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: August 2011
CD No: LSO LIVE
LSO0708 [2 SACDs]
Duration: 2 hours 9 minutes
Although based on a public event this production has the nature of a studio recording. It is good to have no applause, balance is admirable and the neutral acoustic of the Barbican Hall assists clarity. All three soloists are in a natural perspective – typified by the many examples of answering phrases between them and the chorus. And there is an excellent sense of flow brought to the whole by Sir Colin Davis. I found it particularly fetching towards the end of ‘Spring’, where Haydn divides the chorus not into ‘men’ and ‘women’ but lists their alternating entries as ‘Bursche’ and ‘Mädchen’ (Lads and Lasses). The London Symphony Chorus reflects this intention beautifully.
Comparisons with other German-language recordings confirm Davis’s coherent and unified approach. I am reminded of the approach of Karl Böhm who also gives a broad and noble reading on his Deutsche Grammophon recording. True, Böhm’s starry soloists – Gundula Janowitz, Peter Schreier and Martti Talvela – cannot help but be imposing (and they are balanced more forwardly) but, as with this LSO version, Böhm represents the best of those readings that use modern instrumental forces.
Colin Davis’s baritone soloist Andrew Foster-Williams (in the role of Simon) has the ideal timbre to represent a countryman. He is admirable when Simon goes to work cheerfully to the melody familiar from Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony. He is certainly a sturdy ploughman. By contrast, Talvela sounds like a great hero going to battle, but his singing is nonetheless thrilling. Miah Persson’s Hanne is fluent and colourful; she never over-dramatises. Her extensive aria in the ‘Summer’ section is beautifully fashioned – it is colourful music, but neither here, nor indeed elsewhere, is she tempted into operatic intensity and her use of vibrato is modest. Lukas, taken by Jeremy Ovenden, often acts as narrator. His early arias are not crucial to the plot but Ovenden’s artistry is shown in his extensive representation of the weary traveller in the ‘Winter’ sequence. There is a Schreier-like elegance to his tone and admirable clarity of diction. The striking Storm sequence must have been quite an experience in the concert-hall and, as recorded, achieves a powerful realisation of the orchestra while capturing the excellent diction of the chorus.
I imagine that audiences might find ‘Autumn’ as containing the highlight of the oratorio because of its spectacular ‘hunting scene’. There is much joy in this LSO version, Haydn’s extravagant horn-writing given with great force and remarkable precision. This scene is also a speciality of John Eliot Gardiner. He gives it a vivid representation in his recording and it’s good to hear Davis imbuing it with just as much fire. ‘Autumn’ ends with Bacchanalian celebration, the concluding chorus given here with utmost force, yet with commendable poise. There is an excellent recording by René Jacobs on ‘period’ instruments that takes a similar general view to that of Davis and with one particular feature that the two have in common – it’s puzzling that both conductors, in their carefully structured interpretations, decide that the ‘peasant dance’, when folk celebrate the wine harvest, should be taken very swiftly. Jacobs is remarkably fast but with Davis it is a whirlwind – surely the peasants could not stay on their feet at this pace (after so much wine maybe they didn’t). Davis’s tempo is wild, bordering on extreme, but it does serve to hurl the music into the magnificent chorus, which is exceptionally exciting.
The brief prelude to ‘Winter’ is as moving as many of Haydn’s most-serious slow movements. Colin Davis stresses its marked contrast with the previous elation. The light touch with which Lukas portrays the troubles of the traveller is off-set by the calm ‘spinning song’ shared between Hanne and female chorus – now ‘women’ and ‘girls’. It remains for the clever country-girl to get the better of the crafty squire before Simon’s aria laments the dying of the year – I like Richard Wigmore’s take on this (in the booklet) when he suggests that this is an allegory for old age. The final ‘Trio and Chorus’ is performed with nobility; Davis’s unhurried approach is ideal.
This is a notable performance and the sound is admirable – the problems posed by recording at a concert performance are successfully overcome. I could have done with a little more presence from the harpsichord, played with great imagination by Catherine Edwards; also I don’t hear Haydn’s exciting use of horns in C-alto in the ultimate chorus – did the forceful trumpets blot them out? But these are small matters and the balancing of the clearly-detailed orchestra against full chorus is achieved in exemplary fashion. This must have been a special evening in the Barbican Hall and it is certainly a special recorded version of Haydn’s The Seasons.