Prom 26: 8th August 2001 – The Seasons

The Seasons

Simone Nold (soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Neal Davies (bass)

Wiener Singakademie, Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra conducted by Helmuth Rilling

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by John Hoppner, 1791

Reviewed by: Paul Hutchinson

Reviewed: 8 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Haydn’s Oratorio, The Seasons, was premiered in Vienna in April 1801 to great acclaim from critics and public.

The idea for the work had come to Haydn two years previously during a performance of his The Creation. His text-collaborator for that, Gottfried van Swieten, had sourced an epic poem on the subject of the progress of the yearly cycle by the Scottish poet James Thomson; van Swieten shaped the text to accommodate Haydn’s score.

The Seasons has not enjoyed the same popularity as the earlier oratorio; one of the reasons for this is possibly Haydn’s penchant for more elevated subject matter. However, this did not inhibit Haydn’s musical inspiration, which is often enchanting.

The Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, which consists of 45 players (from the Vienna Philharmonic and Symphony Orchestras, and musicians from Hungary), and is slightly larger in numbers than in Haydn’s day, played beautifully, with warmth in the wind and string sections. WienerSingakademie, described as an ‘amateur choir with professional requirements’, sang amiably and with precision.

The opening section, ‘Spring’, began with a well-shaped orchestral introduction, even if Rilling might have pointed-up more the cheekiness in the woodwind. Neal Davies sang ‘Simon’ with a well-projected voice and characterised the rustic aspect with animation.

The excellent John Mark Ainsley brought to ‘Luke’ his usual light, firm tone and fine expression – maybe a tad too fine, he is, after all, a country lad! His cavatina, ‘Dem Druck erleiget’ (“Nature bows before the onslaught”), was his big moment of the evening, which he dispatched with ringing tone and beauty of line; he truly evoked the merciless sun’s heat.

‘Jane’ was sung by Simone Nold, a last-minute replacement for Susan Gritton; she seized her moment briefly in ‘Welche Labung… ‘ (“How refreshing to the senses”), as Jane feels the reviving thrill of ‘Summer’ and the soul’s awakening to pleasure and delight. In the ‘Winter’ section, she delighted with Jane’s saucy tale of the resourceful maid – “who held her honour dear… ” – as she outwits a randy nobleman.

Rilling’s opening to ‘Autumn’ was properly transparent in instrumental clarity, albeit a bit bland, a Rilling characteristic. He came into his own, generally, in ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’, especially in the hunt scene – the graphic depiction of the dog in the grass – introducing an accelerando that was truly exciting. The horns rose to the occasion with splendid playing. The ‘wine chorus’, with its changes of mood gave the choir its big moment which it relished with resounding tone and precise attack.

This performance drew a large audience, mainly, this writer noted, from the older generation, who were rewarded with a performance that was both delightful and committed, even if Helmuth Rilling’s direction somewhat lacked that bucolic bounce which, in the music of Joseph Haydn, leaves one with an outer, and inner, smile.

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