Haydn's "The Seasons" On Naxos
Haydn composed his oratorios "The Creation" and "The Seasons" late in life under the great influence of Handel following his trips to London in the 1790s. Haydn was at the height of his powers with his 104 symphonies already behind him.
Last year Naxos released an outstanding version of "The Creation" with Andreas Sperring conducting the Capella Augustina. Naxos has followed-up this release with an equally impressive performance of "The Seasons" in which Morten Schuldt-Jensen conducts the Leipziger Kammerorchester. These two recordings offer fresh, budget-priced, and convincing readings of two choral masterworks. Both oratorios are performed on modern instruments, but with great attention to performance practices in Haydn's day. I was fortunate to hear this recording at an appropriate time -- over the first lovely spring weekend of the year, with Haydn's opening movement celebrating the passing of winter and the coming of spring.
The Seasons has a much more pastoral, bucolic cast than its companion. The liberetto was composed by Gottfried von Swieten based upon a poem by James Thompson. It is performed in German on this CD. (The English version is equally authentic.) The work cost Haydn a great deal of pain and time, much of which was due to his dislike of the libretto and to von Swieten's gratuitous kibbitzing on the score. The work includes three prominent solo roles for rustic characters named Hanne, Lukas, and Simon, performed here by Sibylla Ruhens, soprano, Andreas Karasiak, tenor, and Stephan MacLeod, bass. I found Ms. Ruhens particularly engaging.
The Seasons shows a great variety of musical styles, including large orchestral overtures for each of the four movements, solos, ensembles, and large choruses. The work looks back to Handel, to Mozart's Magic Flute in some places, and to Haydn himself in an aria from "Spring" in which he quotes his own already proverbial theme from the "Surprise" symphony. In its depiction of the storm in "Summer" the oratorio looks forward to Beethoven and in some of its rustic tone-paintings, it looks forward still further to the romantics.
There are some lovely, meditative sections in this work, including Hanne's cavatina "Light and Life in Sadness Languish" from "Winter" and Simon's aria "Behold the Weak and Foolish man" from "Winter" which analogizes the passing of the seasons to the transience of human life. The pastorale choruses include the opening "Come Gentle Spring" from "Spring." Many of the works include extensive solo passages for winds, with the horns figuring prominently in several hunting pieces. Haydn's orchestral writing, particularly in the introductions to "Spring" and "Winter" show, as does the introduction to "The Creation" the mastery he had developed from years of symphonic composition. But the many rousing choruses and ensembles pieces are the highlight of "The Seasons" as Haydn develops his material forcefully and fugally. The work's concluding double chorus ""There comes the great and glorious man" with its ending "Amen!" gets a stunning reading here.
These two budget-priced recordings of "The Seasons" and "The Creation" offer new, exciting readings of much-loved, often-recorded music. They offer a great opportunity for the new listener to get to know these great works of Haydn. They will appeal as well to those who have their own cherished versions of these venerable scores.