The Seasons

Die Jahreszeiten

Rebecca Evans (soprano)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)

Monteverdi Choir

English Baroque SoloistsSir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Anne Ozorio

Reviewed: 11 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Haydn’s “Die Jahreszeiten” (The Seasons) is a curiosity. It was premiered in 1801, at the beginning of the Romantic era, yet harks back to Baroque form. It strips oratorio of religious connotations and adapts it to popular ‘singspiel’ entertainment. The peasants it portrays are doughty Germans, not the pseudo-Greek stereotypes of classical art. Furthermore, it is illustrative, picturesque music designed to recreate the sounds of nature. Six years later, Beethoven was to write his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony with its storm and lyrical scenes. Still to come was Weber’s “Der Freischütz” in which peasant choruses play an integral part. “Die Jahreszeiten” thus straddles different musical genres and eras. Bach meets Weber, through Haydn. There are also various in-jokes: Simon the farmer whistles a melody from Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony, and, in the final aria, there is a quotation from Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K550).

The four sections of the oratorio each celebrate a season. There isn’t a narrative. Although there are three soloists, Simon the Farmer, Hannah his daughter, and Lucas (Hannah’s lover), are symbols on which to hang recitatives and arias, rather than fully formed characters. In ‘Spring’ they sing fairly generic set-pieces about chasing away winter and welcoming the new planting season. The real ‘action’ is the musical interplay between chorus and soloists, between singers and instrumentalists.

‘Summer’ starts with a remarkably atmospheric depiction of the rising sun, the violas playing ascendant chords that gradually increase in volume and tempo. The sense of wonder associated with recitatives works well in this context. Each soloist sings with a heightened sense of intensity, as if recounting a miracle, such as when Lucas describes the heat of the midday sun radiating over the fields; here James Gilchrist sang as if he were a prototype Evangelist, barely able to contain his excitement about what he’s describing.

‘Autumn’ is evoked by a hearty song for chorus about the killing of a stag. It comes complete with (hunting) horns, positioned here on both sides of the platform, adding a spatial dimension. Like a hunting party, the chorus repeats wild calls, the gore-splattered imagery reinforced by trumpets and fast tempos. It’s music so vivid that it could almost be film.

There’s further tone-painting in the introduction to ‘Winter’; here the thick fogs that cue this particular season are evoked in a swirling miasma of strings and woodwinds. It’s reflected again in Hannah’s ‘Cavatina’, where short pauses between words create a sense of stillness. Such narrative as there is centres on being indoors, to images of families huddled round fires and telling stories; there’s a ‘Spinning Song’ and a novelty number about a folksy ballad.

If the grins on the faces of the performers are evidence, “The Seasons” must be great fun to perform; Sir John Eliot Gardiner was dancing while he conducted! This score’s rough-and-ready quality would be soured by an over-refined approach – this is music about peasant life, after all – so occasional weakness of diction and attack didn’t matter.

Of the soloists, Dietrich Henschel wasn’t at his best, over-doing the Ts and Ds at the end of words rather too often. The afternoon, though, belonged to Gilchrist, partly because he had the best settings, such as the lovely ‘Cavatina’ in ‘Summer’, and making it seem like a love-song to the earth. Gilchrist’s is one of the most exciting, refreshing voices on the circuit at the moment, quite devoid of the preciousness that so often marks the ‘English tenor’ style. Rebecca Evans’s Hannah had some memorable contributions, not least the ‘Spinning Song’, in which she brought out its risqué elements.

The orchestral playing was brilliant and there was a good balance with the lively choral singing; the Monteverdi Choir is among the best in the business. Gardiner’s rapid tempos kept up the sense of high spirits and animation and he brought out little flourishes – like trumpet alarums and melodies on piccolo – which enhanced the effect of busy activity that is so much a part of the work’s appeal.

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