Smith: The Seasons

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: John Christopher Smith
LABELS: Christophorus
ALBUM TITLE: Smith: The Seasons
WORKS: The Seasons
PERFORMER: Emma Kirkby (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Hans Jörg Mammel (tenor), Markus Simon (bass); Festivalchor Musica Franconia; La Banda/Wolfgang Riedelbauch
CATALOGUE NO: CHR 77382

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For John Christopher Smith, Nature was God, to be glorified through music. This world-premiere recording of The Seasons reveals the splendour and originality of his vision. Inspired by James Thomson’s poem A Hymn on the Seasons (1730), Smith’s oratorio entwined British practices in the genre, particularly those of William Boyce, with pleasure garden cantatas and playhouse songs. By extending and synthesizing standard conceits such as birdcalls, siciliano airs, and themes shared between solo singer and instruments, Smith delicately evoked changing landscapes.

La Banda and the vocal soloists fully commit to Smith’s vision. Birdsong imitations are startlingly realistic, and string effects – from summer’s thunder to autumn’s shower of fruits – are striking. Emma Kirkby radiates joy, gliding easily in and out of lines entwined with solo instruments. Countertenor Tim Mead equals Kirkby’s ease and spiritedness, and their rollicking duet ‘The thunder rolls’ slips down like champagne. Bass Markus Simon, though slightly less fleet, captures Smith’s witticisms expressed as register extremes and as storminess that the sun easily vanquishes.

Sadly, the choir is weak, and too large for this work, making crisp execution impossible: the sung text is incomprehensible, imitative passages are muddy and, critically, intonation droops in pianissimo sections. Yet the choir does command sufficient ensemble to generate satisfying climaxes, and to bring out Smith’s contrasts between choral hymns of praise and the imagery in solo numbers. Despite its flaws this disc is a jewel, giving us a glimpse of Smith’s prodigious gifts, and of Britain’s musical legacy beyond Handel (see Background to…, p80).

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Berta Joncus