Haydn’s The Seasons – Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh at Barbican Hall

The Seasons – Oratorio to a text by Baron van Swieten adapted and translated from James Thomson’s original [sung in the new English version by Paul McCreesh]

Christiane Karg (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor) & Christopher Purves (baritone)

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 14 January, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Paul McCreesh. Photograph: Sheila RockIt is strange that The Seasons, Haydn’s crowning masterpiece, finished eight years before his death, is less-well-known than its predecessor The Creation. Possibly the choruses of the subsequent work boast slightly less memorable tunes (none of the them quite rival the spontaneous ebullience of ‘The heavens are telling’) but it is impossible to think of a more multi-faceted, overwhelmingly joyous choral work than The Seasons.

Following his much-praised performances of The Creation, Paul McCreesh has now turned his attention to The Seasons and, as before, has made a new edition of the English text. Its relative unfamiliarity has afforded McCreesh freer rein with Baron van Swieten’s unidiomatic “back-translation” from his German version of Scottish poet James Thomson’s hugely popular 1730 pastoral epic.

McCreesh’s translation is a great improvement, replacing cringe-making twee and clumsy phrases with a directness that also has a fidelity to Thomson. His edition deserves to become standard, and ought to herald a new wave of performances in the vernacular. This was, after all, what Haydn intended: The Seasons was the first work ever to have its sung text published simultaneously in three languages (German, English and French).

McCreesh’s Barbican performance should also inspire new interest in the work. Radiating joy and passionate commitment at every turn, the result was a resounding triumph. His lively, buoyant approach made the most of Haydn’s orchestral detail, the superb Gabrieli Players relishing especially the delightful depictions of swarming bees, gambolling lambs and the like. Unlike the gargantuan forces he used for The Creation, McCreesh opted this time for a modest chamber-sized orchestra. It made an impressively full sound, although a few more strings would not have gone amiss. The raw energy of four natural horns blasting away during the thrilling hunting chorus was breathtaking. At the other end of the scale, the valedictory Winter aria for bass, poignantly sung by Christopher Purves, was spellbinding in its intimate tenderness.

Allan Clayton. Photograph: Jack LiebeckPurves and Alan Clayton were both superb: in the richness of their voices, their commanding presence, and in their exemplary diction (although Clayton’s eccentric Robinson Crusoe-like appearance was bemusing). Christiane Karg displayed an attractive voice and manner, but her pronunciation was not strong enough – a critical point in a performance pitched at conveying the text to a primarily English-speaking audience.

The choral singing was magnificent. The number of singers (30) was ideal to provide lusty weight with excellent clarity, and the choristers entered fully into the spirit: the hearty drinking chorus was wonderfully entertaining, complete with a battery of triangles and tambourines. Recitatives were accompanied stylishly and discreetly by cello, double bass and fortepiano (a harpsichord won’t do for late Haydn).

Even with McCreesh’s brisk tempos this was a late-finishing evening (at 10.20; it ought to have started at 7 rather than 7.30), but the dedication, theatricality and sheer exuberance of the performance ensured that we were held in rapt attention throughout.

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