Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Die Jahreszeiten
PERFORMER: Marlis Petersen (soprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Dietrich Henschel (baritone); RIAS Chamber Choir, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/René Jacobs
Front runners among recordings of The Seasons have long been the inspiriting period-instrument performance from John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv) and the still fresh-sounding 1968 recording in English from BBC forces under Colin Davis (Philips). This new version matches them in colour, vigour and choral and orchestral brilliance, and arguably surpasses them in joyous exhilaration. René Jacobs makes the most of the zoological imitations in ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’, with the insects out-buzzing and the cattle out-bellowing all the competition; and no one else conjures such wild abandon in the autumn chase, launched at the fastest possible tempo by gloriously raucous natural horns. Aided by an ideally judged choral-orchestral balance, the cataclysmic summer storm, with its fearsome timpani crashes, baleful horns and trombones and shrieking trumpets, leaves you in no doubt that this was the loudest, most elementally powerful music that had ever been heard in 1801. But what clinches my preference for this new version is the trio of soloists, led by the soaring, sensuous soprano of Marlis Petersen. Baritone Dietrich Henschel vividly communicates the joyous impatience of his ploughing song, and brings a tense excitement to his shooting aria (to which Jacobs adds an illicit offstage rifle crack – be warned). Petersen’s timing and her knowing humour are delightful, both in her tale of seduction outwitted and in her love duet with Werner Güra’s ardent, graceful tenor. Added appoggiaturas and spontaneous-sounding touches of ornamentation are further pleasures. No one who owns the Gardiner or Davis recordings needs rush to replace them. But for his mingled drama, warmth and bucolic exuberance, and his unrivalled solo team, Jacobs now becomes the benchmark for Haydn’s captivating celebration of the rural world in which he grew up.