Haydn: The Seasons

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: The Seasons
PERFORMER: Franz Crass, Edith Mathis, Nicolai GeddaSüddeutscher Madrigalchor, Bavarian State Orchestra/Wolfgang Gönnenwein
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 7 64548-2 ADD
Here are two widely contrasting views of Haydn’s late choral masterpiece. For yearsThe Seasons lay under the shadow of The Creation, whose triumphant first performances had the Viennese nobility jumping with excitement. Whereas The Creation was worshipped in France, England, Germany, Holland, Sweden and Russia, The Seasons, performed in Vienna in 1801, was never even given a hearing in London during Haydn’s lifetime.

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As the 20th century draws to its close, I notice that The Seasons is becoming a much-loved and much-recorded work: apart from these two versions, the CD catalogue boasts half a dozen others, including performances by Karajan, Böhm and Harnoncourt. It was always much more popular in German-speaking countries than elsewhere (not true of The Creation), and the loving care bestowed on it by Gönnenwein and his group is typical of the respect with which the work was always treated there. Edith Mathis is at her spectacular best – the recording was made in 1965 but does not show its age at all – and Crass and Gedda are equally impressive. The tempi chosen are often surprisingly light and agile, and Gönnenwein displays a loving fidelity to the rich and complex score. In short, it is a beautiful performance – not spectacular, but relishing the scoremany felicities. It is, of course, sung in German.

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Davis’s breezy performance also has excellent soloists, of a very different kind; because here the work is sung in English. The original records date from 1968, and feature some elegant playing from Maurits Sillem, who uses a fortepiano for the recitatives. The whole is very English-sounding (and not just the words), but in defence of this approach it might be said that The Seasons was adapted by Haydn’s friend and patron, Baron van Swieten, from Thomson’s celebrated poem. Although there is hardly a minute’s difference in the total timings of these two recordings, Davis’s whole approach is lighter. There is outstanding recitative singing at the outset of Summer from Ryland Davies, and the horn solo by Alan Civil (not named) in No. 10 is superb. A very successful set, and many will prefer the English text and the lighter approach. HCRobbins Landon