Haydn: The Seasons

Reviewed on Wed 17 May, 2017

Launching the work are timpani forcefully pounded by hard sticks followed by a terrifying snow-storm, reflecting inspired empowerment from the podium; and the playing is magnificent, brass ablaze as they always are.

What, a 50-bar fugue on just six words “for thy bounty, thanks be given”? Placed at the end of section 6, it is but one example of canny mastery running rife in this mighty composition. And mighty it sounds from a band of 116 with a chorus of 71, replicating numbers Haydn conducted in 1801. Banished, though, is the absurd English text, replaced by Paul McCreesh’s comprehensible rewrite. Satisfyingly, too, a smaller choir with soloists placed behind the orchestra ensures that instrumental detail isn’t drowned. But McCreesh doesn’t think small. Launching the work are timpani forcefully pounded by hard sticks followed by a terrifying snow-storm, reflecting inspired empowerment from the podium; and the playing is magnificent, brass ablaze as they always are. Absorb the angry responses to Winter from Andrew Foster-Williams (Simon), and Jeremy Ovenden (Lucas); the Adagio of melting woodwind sonority heralding a yearning “Sweet messengers of Spring” from Carolyn Sampson (Hannah) plus the choral finesse in “Come gentle Spring” and you’ll know the singers too are under the spell. Reach Summer and the Introduction introduces the original version – for violas, cellos and double basses, violins only entering in bar 28. Armin Raab’s 2009 edition (the basis of McCreesh’s own) relegates it to the appendix. But it fits the context, especially when phrased, shaped and articulated so eloquently. And eloquence is consistently uppermost, stemming from McCreesh’s singular passion shared with musicians who likewise respond passionately to every facet, be it awe (sunrise), love (Lucas/Hannah), hunting (horns galvanising in the 12 calls), foreboding (introduction to Winter) and optimism (final chorus). For composer Robin Holloway, Haydn’s greatness lay “in the telling of the strange within the normal, the vast within the modest, the dark within the bright and vice versa: the essence of human experience in essentially musical terms” – revealed in this superlative, all-encompassing performance.
–Nalen Anthoni