The Seasons

Haydn
The Seasons [sung in German]

Sally Matthews (soprano)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)

Handel and Haydn Society of Boston
Sir Roger Norrington


Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 23 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There is a great musical thunderstorm in ‘Summer’ of Haydn’s “The Seasons”, but not one that causes extensive flooding and general misery. Given the rather non-seasonal weather the UK has been having of late perhaps this was not the most fortunate of programming – but, as we know, these things are planned some time ahead.

From most aspects this was a rewarding concert. Sir Roger Norrington’s Haydn interpretations can always be counted upon to be sprightly, idiomatic and, above all, fun. He is no stranger to conducting this work in this venue either, and thus knows how to achieve good balance in the tricky acoustic.

The Orchestra of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, playing on period instruments, with Margaret Faultless as First Violin – she is familiar as a leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – performed well under Norrington’s direction. All the players, particularly those of the woodwind and brass sections, who have a few star turns, seemed to relish their moments in the spotlight. The horns had a whale of a time and were appropriately raucous in the hunting episodes of ‘Autumn’. The piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones made their descriptive contributions felt and the oboe provided a suitably tuneless and insistent cockerel call. The clarinet playing was superb.

The evocations of dawn in ‘Summer’ and the morning fog in ‘Winter’ were marvellously atmospheric and exhibited a fantastic control of dynamic. These passages are Haydn at his innovative best. Elsewhere in the work one sometimes gets the impression that he was less fired by the material than he had been by that of “The Creation”. Certainly the more familiar biblical text of that work perhaps makes more of an impact, but there is much to enjoy in the depiction of the ordinary rustic world of “The Seasons”, even if the text is not so strong. Here it was sung in German, with a rather arcane and flowery translation printed in the programme (“You mincing dandies stay away!” Please!). Chorus and soloists were very good at getting the words across with admirable clarity into this difficult space.

The choir sang well and one could hear all of Haydn’s contrapuntal effects in all their complexity. If the choral singers lacked something it was ebullience and a reaction to the text, which offers opportunities for some pretty rustic and lusty singing in the tavern scenes, or the depictions of the hunt – but these were all voiced in rather similar tones and with a lack of swagger and abandon. The tavern scene was rather like a genteel cocktail party. A little reactivity would have lifted their performance out of the ordinary.

Of the soloists James Gilchrist made the most impressive contribution. His light and melting tone seemed to reach the far reaches of the Albert Hall with no problem. He colours his tones so well, is judicious in his use of vibrato, and really communicates with the audience. His control of dynamic is also impressive and he really made something of his recitatives, accompanied by John Finney’s sprightly fortepiano.

Sally Matthews was also impressive, particularly in the upper reaches of her part. She knows how to do ‘artless’ very well and certainly knows how to float notes above the stave. This she does with a gorgeously velvety character to the sound. Like Gilchrist she was sparing in her use of vibrato, and this style matched the orchestral playing. She also has the ability to sound the rapid passages with aplomb and interacted and blended well with Gilchrist in their duets. She was a little tied to her score and conductor at times and rarely turned a glance to the sides of the hall, which detracted from her performance a little.

Jonathan Lemalu seems to have found a little more focus of late and he has also learnt to use and inflect words rather more effectively, albeit in a somewhat generalised way. It’s an impressive voice, though, but one that still needs a bit more focus and polish and also agility – some of the more florid passages taxed him a little, and it seemed as if Norrington was exerting a cautious approach to tempo to accommodate at these points. Bass voices tend to take a little longer to mature and settle and I’m sure this will happen with this voice of undeniably huge potential.

I do wish the BBC would get over its addiction to ‘atmospheric’ coloured lighting. You could predict how it would be here – orange-red for autumn, blue for winter, etc., and so it was. Many find it distracting and even patronising. We do have ears and imaginations, and surely our responses should be personal.

All in all a very enjoyable performance: a shame about the weather outside afterwards!



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