The Seasons – Oratorio to a German libretto (Die Jahreszeiten) by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, based on the poem The Seasons by James Thomson [sung in van Swieten’s English re-translation]
Sophie Bevan (soprano; Hannah), Mark Padmore (tenor; Lucas) & Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone; Simon)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: 2 March, 2019
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Vladimir Jurowski’s relationship with eighteenth-century performing style has been evident from his appearances with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and this account of Haydn’s Seasons made many concessions to period performing practice. He eschewed vibrato, timpani were struck with hard sticks (except during the thunderous storm scene), natural trumpets were used and they illuminated the texture both of the Autumn dance and the final chorus.
The vocal soloists also made their contribution to an authentic approach. It is a matter of discussion as to what extent vibrato might have been used in late Haydn but here the compromise involved modest employment of the device except in Autumn and Winter when Mark Padmore used a little more of it to project his voice over full scoring. Sophie Bevan was gently clear, never over-stressing the dramatic moments even though some of Haydn’s surprisingly high writing could have tempted her to do so. Particularly charming was her coquettish treatment of the irrelevant yet delightful song about the naughty squire and the fair maid who thwarts his crafty plans. Padmore’s confident interpretation overall was especially fine in the Summer aria concerning the cheerful shepherd – a strong, eloquently shaped vocal line. Andrew Foster-Williams was often required to use the higher tones of his flexible bass-baritone; his clear diction and light touch in the joyful husbandman’s aria that includes a theme from the ‘Surprise’ Symphony was stylistically ideal. More lyrical was the aria from the Summer section – this time concerning the cheerful shepherd. This is sung in duet with horn – an adventurous piece of writing for the instrument and played with great skill by Mark Vines.
From the dramatic realisation of the Prelude it was clear that the LPO would play colourfully throughout – this is Jurowski’s way. Particularly effective was the playing of the violas leading into Summer – a wonderfully mysterious moment. The most striking incidents come in Autumn and here the ninety-strong London Philharmonic Choir unleashed its considerable power. The excitement of the hunt was enhanced by using antiphonal horns. In the subsequent Bacchanalian episode Jurowski gave the evening’s only example of eccentricity; after much wine a peasant dance involves choral participation of utmost joyousness. Never have I heard it taken so fast – at this pace it was more suited to Dervishes than to Peasants.
The text, as re-translated by Gottfried van Swieten, has often been criticised and some conductors have used amended versions. True there is some stilted English but the words fit the melodies well and the literary failings don’t really spoil the narrative. Here there was the occasional change, a word would sometimes be omitted in order to improve the flow of a melodic line but this was of no consequence.
The final triumphant section is set for double chorus. Jurowski’s decision to divide the two widely greatly enhanced Haydn’s bold writing. Had he joined those conductors who dare to use the horns in the upper octave, the exhilarating conclusion to this fine performance would have sounded even more exciting.