Die Jahreszeiten – text by Baron Gottfried van Swieten after James Thomson [sung in German]
Genia Kühmeier (soprano), Werner Güra (tenor) & Christian Gerhaher (bass)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Concentus Musicus Wien
Recorded 28 June-2 July 2007 in Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: October 2009
CD No: DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI
88697 28126 2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes
Although a huge success at its first performances in 1801, Haydn’s “The Seasons” has – somewhat mystifyingly – failed to establish itself so firmly in the choral repertoire as its predecessor “The Creation”. The earlier work has a far larger recorded legacy, but there is now a very respectable clutch of good recordings of “The Seasons” too; this one, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt – his second of the work –, takes its place as one of the very best.
The primary joy of his latest version is the superb solo singing; no other account boasts such a consistently delightful and well-matched trio. Each voice is sensitive and well-rounded, and capable of immaculate and effortless-sounding coloratura. Whereas the angels in “The Creation” are mere commentators, the soloists in “The Seasons” have the difficult task of conveying the narrative through earthy peasant characters. It could easily (and, in other recordings, often does) sound self-conscious or forced, but each of Harnoncourt’s soloists sounds natural and at ease.
Christian Gerhaher gives a hearty rendition of the genial farmer’s ‘Spring song’ (the tune he cheerfully whistles is a cheeky quotation by Haydn from his own ‘Surprise’ Symphony). Genia Kühmeier is mesmerizingly poised in her intimate aria that precedes the colossal ‘Summer’ storm, helped by delectable oboe solos to create an oppressively arid atmosphere, and she revels delightfully in the bawdy folk-song which enlivens a long ‘Winter’ night. Kühmeier’s ‘love duets’ (Haydn avoided any operatically explicit expressions of passion) with Werner Güra are sweetly delivered, and Güra gives a vividly dramatic account of the pre-Schubertian ‘Winter’ wanderer.
Harnoncourt treads a near-ideal middle path between the vibrantly-coloured but arguably over-emphatic approaches of Roger Norrington (with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on Profil) and René Jacobs (with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi), and that of the pristinely-drilled but often lacklustre John Eliot Gardiner (with the English Baroque Soloists on Archiv). Where Norrington encourages his horns to revel in their brash interjections in the farmer’s song, and his jauntily whistling piccolo cuts through like a laser, Harnoncourt is more restrained. The prelude to ‘Spring’ is similarly down-played (for thrilling Sturm und Drang drama, no one matches Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI here).
Harnoncourt reserves orchestral exuberance for significant moments, where it carries an even greater impact. Rasping horns and baying trombones ensure an exhilarating ‘Autumn’ hunt scene, and the drinking chorus which follows goes with a real swing – Harnoncourt imparting an authentic Viennese feel to the rustic waltz-like section.
Recorded at concerts, the sound is not always crystal-clear, and the strings sometimes sound underpowered in big tutti numbers, but the sense of space is well-captured. The fortepiano recitative accompaniment is idiomatic and not overly flamboyant (as can be the case with Jacobs), and the members of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir acquit themselves with great aplomb. Harnoncourt’s second go at “The Seasons” is a winner.