HAYDN – Oratorio “The Seasons”
Lesley Graham (soprano) / James Adams (tenor) / Roger Wilson (bass)
Festival Singers / Orchestra (Simon McLellan, leader)
Rosemary Russell (conductor)
St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 20th November, 2011
Of all the works produced by that exemplar of creative industry and longevity Josef Haydn (1732-1809), his oratorio “The Seasons” is surely one of the happiest on all counts. In the work the composer gives full expression to his delight in nature, his obvious relish for country pastimes (blood-sports and all), and his serene religious faith.
What strikes the listener at a first hearing is the work’s ceaseless flow of wonderful things, the composer’s imagination and powers of expression obviously undimmed by his advancing years, despite his complaints to his publisher, thus:
“The world daily pays me many compliments, even on the fire of my last works; but no one would believe the strain and effort it cost me to produce these, in as much as many a day my feeble memory and the unstrung state of my nerves so completely crush me to the earth that I fall into the most melancholy condition, so much so that for days afterwards I am incapable of finding one single idea, until at length my heart is revived by Providence, when I seat myself at the piano and begin to hammer away at it. Then all goes well, again, God be praised!”
The work’s librettist, Baron Gottfried Von Swieten, has come in for some stick over the years, some of it from the composer himself, who was supposed to have exclaimed at one point that the libretto was “Frenchified trash”. Swieten adapted his verses from those of the Scottish poet James Thomson, whose epic, eponymous work in praise of nature had become one of the most popular texts of his age. Haydn and Swieten quarrelled over various aspects of the work (as happens with nearly all fruitful collaborations of this kind) – but the success of the finished product consigned such differences to the wake of musical history.
The work was here sung in English, the words a curious amalgam of Swieten’s re-translation of his own script back to the original language (losing most of Thompson’s poetry in the process) and various “improvements” made by different editors at diverse times. Some of the original numbers were cut, and others shortened, but nothing was lost which caused great violence to be done to the work as a whole.
Haydn begins with a dark, orchestra-only evocation of winter gloom – a few gravely-descending bars of darkness set the scene before conductor Rosemary Russell brought in the allegro strongly and sternly, placing winter in retreat-mode, and being more roundly dismissed by both bass and tenor (Roger Wilson stentorian and vivid, James Adams sturdy and poetical). Soprano Lesley Graham then welcomed the spring breezes from “southern skies” with true, lightly-floated tones, the cue for the chorus to properly ring the seasonal change with a lilting “Come gentle spring”….
The number I knew once as “With joy, th’ impatient husbandsman….” here became “At dawn the eager plowman”, given plenty of agrarian spirit by Roger Wilson, and relished by the counterpointing bassoon, nicely played by Oscar Laven. We enjoyed these things greatly, along with the “Surprise Symphony” orchestral quotations, and the singer’s slightly more decorative reprise vocals. James Adams impressed, also, with his golden-toned “The farmer now has done his work”, the following Trio giving the orchestral horns the chance to shine throughout a nicely-burnished moment of introduction, and bringing in the chorus, beautifully rapt at “Let warming air turn suddenly soft”, though with a bit of momentary strain when delivering the stratospheric “And let thy sun resplendent shine”.
Lesley Graham’s lovely “Our prayer is heard on high” set the tone for a nicely-poised duet “Spring, her lovely charms…” between the soprano and tenor, James Adams. And the “God of Light, God of Life!” chorus was stirringly done, the rapturous Beethoven-like mood amply and satisfyingly forwarded by the soloists. Apart from an uncertain initial entry by the men in the fugal chorus “Endless praise to Thee….” the vocal lines were woven together with strength and clarity, Rosemary Russell keeping her orchestra equally up to the mark right to the final cadence.
The remainder of the performance reinforced the above impressions, though particular moments remained in the listener’s memory, such as the sunrise sequence at the beginning of summer, a vivid and urgent introduction by Lesley Graham, followed by soloists and chorus making a marvellous refulgence.
The “Country Calendar” commentaries that followed were also characterfully delivered, Roger Wilson bringing alive the Breughel-like harvesting, and James Adams contrasting the hustle and bustle with a sun-drenched paean of idyllic indolence – all of which led naturally to Lesley Graham’s sweet-toned portrayal of a “haven for the weary”, with Jose Wilson giving us some nicely-turned oboe-playing.
From this “Rural Roundup” kind of mode, we switched to full-on weather-forecasting, portentous announcements from Roger Wilson, with timpanist Doreen Douglas providing telling ambient support. James Adams’ warnings were no less dire, the pizzicato raindrops by now falling about Lesley Graham’s breathless, suspenseful utterances. A sudden lightning-flash, and chorus and orchestra hurled themselves into the maelstrom with great abandonment, a pleasing disorder of unsettling sounds resulting within the confines of the hall.
Autumn, too had its delights, even if the introductory string-playing had some ensemble problems – the Terzetto and Chorus which followed, praising industry and advocating its rewards, had something naughtily Haydn-esque about it, the droll wind figures decorating the soloists’ lines seeming to me to poke gentle fun at the seriousness of it all. The concluding chorus-and-orchestra fugue survived some “woolly” moments along the way towards some wonderfully chromatic upward modulations and a triumphal concluding marriage of honest labour with moral righteousness, soloists, chorus and orchestra shirking not their duties.
Sports of all kinds were celebrated, innocent, knowing and deadly purposeful – we enjoyed both James Adams’ singing and enjoyment in turn of his line “the orchard shades maidens large and small”, and Roger Wilson’s account of the spaniel’s hunting of the hapless bird, shot with a loud timpani retort! As for the deerhunt, the rousing horn-playing (Peter Sharman and Kevin Currie) led the way in grand style, matched in energy and vigour by the chorus, who were then called upon once more a after a short respite, this time for a rollicking drinking-song, “Joyfully, the wine flows free…” The voices did well to sustain their pitch as well as they did across the span of broken phrases, as required by the composer, besides keeping enough energy in reserve for the final “All hail to the wine!”.
Though there were occasional problems with both ensemble and intonation in places, the orchestral playing never lacked for atmosphere and colour throughout – and so it was with the opening of “Winter”, where a lovely, dark-toned instrumental colour at the opening used sombre strings and plaintive winds to suggest the grey mists and gloom, an evocation which the composer equated with his own mortality and failing powers. The Cavatina that followed taxed the strings’ ensemble at the beginning, but Lesley Graham focused our attentions with her tremulously-toned lament at autumn’s passing into darker climes. James Adams’ tale of a lost traveller was also dramatically told, even if the singer didn’t have quite enough breath to easily cap the ascending phrase at “to find comfort sweet”.
The chorus’s “Spinning Song” (surprisingly romantic, dark and dramatic, sounding almost like something out of Wagner!) went with a swing, making a piquant contrast with the saucy tale of the maid who extricated herself from the clutches of a lascivious nobleman. Lesley Graham pointed the detail with some relish throughout, if not with quite enough “heft” in places to be properly heard, though the chorus’s “ha! ha!’s” certainly demonstrated its appreciation of the entertainment.
Roger Wilson’s deep, rich tones saluted the icy grip of winter, imploring all to cling to virtue as a means of salvation – though the brass blooped their first notes in response they recovered to cap the concluding orchestral efforts, and support some fine, strong lines of singing in the fugal passage “Direct us in thy ways”. Everything became somewhat revivalist at the very end, the energy and fervour of the singing and playing filling the hall, and making for a most satisfying conclusion. All credit to the efforts of singers and instrumentalists, and to Rosemary Russell for her inspired and sterling direction, and for bringing such a delightful work to the fore once again, for our pleasure.