The Seasons – 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
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: 27 June, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
A late blossoming from a quintessentially Classical composer, Haydn’s “The Seasons” (first heard in 1801) stands as the summation of an incredible lifetime stretching back to the 1730s, looking forward excitedly to Romantic 19th-century horizons. As if to acknowledge this cusp-standing status from the outset, Sir Colin Davis infused the Introduction to ‘Spring’ with Beethovenian weight and drive, rendering it more a turbulent symphony-movement than a lively interlude. Yet Davis is a consummate Haydn interpreter, and his reading of “The Seasons” has a strength and integrity in which the composer’s mature voice shines brilliantly.
Though often eschewing the vibrant highlighting of details we are used to with ‘period’-instrument performances, Davis displayed thrilling mastery of the work’s broad sweep. Haydn himself spoke disdainfully of the “Frenchified trash” he had been forced to incorporate (including effects depicting leaping lambs, swarming bees), so he may have been pleased with Davis’s integration of these passages into longer musical lines. Davis’s deft touch was often surprisingly brisk, but his experienced sense of pacing rarely faltered. The LSO’s four resplendent horns may have lacked the raw power of ‘natural’ horns, but the ‘hunt scene’ bounded along with compelling vigour – to cite just one example. Only one number fell flat: although he coaxed beautiful singing from the soloists, Davis’s ‘hymn to industry’ was too urbane, devoid of Haydn’s bustling urgency.
Whereas the soloists in “The Creation” represent the voices of angels, in “The Seasons”, as Haydn himself dryly remarked, “only the peasant speaks”. The three soloists take the roles of country-folk, presenting the singers with something of a challenge. Of the impressive vocal line-up, only soprano Miah Persson really had the measure of her role, comfortably conveying just enough peasant-girl character without resorting to arch winks and nods. Her artlessness, confidence and beguiling, fluent voice made her entrancing Summer aria a stand-out moment, enriched with a solo contribution of phenomenal beauty from principal oboist Emanuel Abbühl, and her tale of a maid who gets the better of a lecherous nobleman was sung with a delicious twinkle in the eye.
Persson was also a sensitive partner for Jeremy Ovenden, who nicely matched her vocally but who remained resolutely po-faced even in the couple’s joyous revelling in the awakening delights of Spring. Ovenden seemed more at home in the dramatic aria telling of the traveller lost in a Winter blizzard, delivered with aptly Weberian intensity. Andrew Foster-Williams exuded personality with his richly creamy voice, although moments such as the merry ploughman’s song could have born a touch more earthy characterisation and sense of fun.
Inspired by the big-band Handel performances he experienced in London, Haydn conceived his late oratorios on a similarly grand scale. He would have been absolutely delighted with the magnificently lusty singing of the London Symphony Chorus. From its initial hailing of Spring in rich, sumptuous tones to that season’s life-affirming fugal finale; from the spine-tingling power of the Summer sunrise (a rendition which, thanks also to mighty blazing trumpets, for once rivalled Haydn’s more-famous depiction in “The Creation”) and the thrilling Autumn hunt and rumbustious paean to drink (a touch frenetic on Davis’s part); to the hearty mirth-filled interjections in the jolly Winter tale, the LSC exuded boundless energy and impeccable precision. Only once or twice, such as with the mannered exaggeration of a ffff in “öffne”, was over-drilling obtrusive.
The use of a harpsichord was wholly inappropriate, its anachronistic tinkling sapping the recitatives of crucial drama and momentum (by 1801, when “The Seasons” was premiered, the harpsichord had long since been superseded by the fortepiano). At least Davis didn’t repeat the mistake of his Barbican “Creation” performances (subsequently issued on LSO Live) in which the harpsichord jangled away distractingly throughout.
This issue aside, this committed account was overwhelming, a joy to experience, and surely destined for LSO Live. Though not the last word on “The Seasons”, this performance’s abundance of bristling dynamism, enthusiasm and remarkable musicianship ensured a memorable evening.