Haydn: Die Jahrezeiten (The Seasons)

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Die Jahrezeiten (The Seasons)
PERFORMER: Genia Kühmeier (soprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 88697 28126 2

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Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons (Die Jahrezeiten, 1801) and his slightly earlier The Creation (1798) were composed towards the end of his compositional life, inspired by hearing grand performances of Handel’s oratorios in London. These two works turned out to be the crowning achievement of his entire career.

Haydn’s previous major oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia, composed for Vienna in 1775, was an Italian-language work focusing on lengthy and ornate arias charged with vocal display.

Now, in these two magnificent late works, he took Handel’s examples to heart, placing choral writing at the centre of his overall plan and using it to support grand structural schemes that in The Creation glorify the grandeur of God’s creation, with man at its centre, and in the secular Seasons explore the life of the countryside Haydn had known as a child growing up in rural Austria.

It’s a mystery why Haydn’s The Seasons has never quite won the popularity of its predecessor, though his inventive and compositional powers are at their height in this work, detailing the annual cycle of rural existence, with the final return to Winter clearly pointing up a human birth-to-old-age analogy hinted at throughout.

The result is an unsophisticated world depicted with highly sophisticated means, somewhere between an Arcadian idyll and a Brueghel-style peasant scene. As in The Creation, Haydn’s attention to the text’s imagery throughout results in word-painting of intricate and imaginative delight. George Hall

With three big solo parts plus chorus and large orchestra, The Seasons remains a major challenge even today. Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s second recording of the work uses period instruments, with his Concentus Musicus Wien deploying a striking and often enchanting range of colour to paint in Haydn’s many picturesque strokes, while his professional choir is decisive in its intentions and bracing in tone and attack. The recording itself combines lucidity with warmth, bathing the listener in the overall sound picture.

All three soloists make their mark, soprano Genia Kühmeier with a clean and guileless tone that sounds simplicity itself. Tenor Werner Güra sings on an aptly small scale, but his articulation of the text is superbly achieved.Best of an excellent trio is baritone Christian Gerhaher, who makes every image in the text visible in his warm and humane performance. Harnoncourt’s approach combines a vivid attention to the characterisation of individual numbers, and even individual words, with a loving focus on shaping Haydn’s often artlessly melodic phrases.

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Harnoncourt’s earlier recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra remains an appreciable achievement, though the sheer vitality of the tone-colours available here outclasses it. This new version is certainly on a par with excellent period accounts by John Eliot Gardiner (on Archiv) and René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi).