Saturday, 14 March 2015

Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten in Istanbul

Miah Persson, Ian Bostridge, Duncan Rock, Sascha Goetzel, Salzburg Bach Choir, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra - Borusan Istanbul Filarmoni Orkestrasi - Photograph Ozge Balkan
Miah Persson, Ian Bostridge, Duncan Rock, Sascha Goetzel,
Salzburg Bach Choir, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
Borusan Istanbul Filarmoni Orkestrasi - Photograph Ozge Balkan

Haydn Die Jahreszeiten; Persson, Bostridge, Rock, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Goetzel; Istanbul Lütfi Kirdar ICEC
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 12 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Vital characterful performance from Istanbul orchestra in its first oratorio

Joseph Haydn's last oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) was conductor Sascha Goetzel's choice for the first oratorio performance by his Borusan Istanbul Phiharmonic Orchestra in the Istanbul Lütfi Kirdar ICEC on Thursday 12 March 2015. Goetzel and the orchestra were joined by soloists Miah Persson, Ian Bostridge and Duncan Rock, and the Salzburg Bach Choir.

Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten was intended as a follow up to his previous oratorio Die Schopfung (The Creation) and again Baron Gottfried van Swieten was a prime mover and he created the text basing it loosely on James Thomson's poem The Seasons. Van Swieten created a parallel English text so the work could be performed in either English or German (as for The Creation) to respond to Haydn's continuing English popularity, but his English translation is only loosely based on Thomson's poem and his English is not ideal and the work is nowadays performed in German as it was in Istanbul.

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (Borudan Istanbul Filarmoni Orkestrasi) performs the majority of its concerts in the Istanbul Lütfi Kirdar ICEC which is the Istanbul conference centre, as the Atatürk Cultural Centre in Istanbul is closed with no current prospect of re-opening. The conference centre provides a large modern space with a surprisingly successful acoustic in the large scale Haydn work and certainly no worse than hearing something in the Royal Festival Hall in London. Sight lines were certainly good.

Sascha Goetzel, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra - Borusan Istanbul Filarmoni Orkestrasi - Photograph Ozge Balkan
Sascha Goetzel, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra -
Borusan Istanbul Filarmoni Orkestrasi - Photograph Ozge Balkan
The players generally wore black, with the women in all black (many very glamorously dressed) and the men in lounge suits with grey ties. This is quite a young orchestra, with an average age of around thirty, the youngest around 20, and with a balance of men and women.

Sascha Goetzel, who has been the orchestra's artistic director since 2009, has been expanding the orchestra's repertoire and this was the first large scale oratorio that they had performed. Goetzel used quite a large orchestra, some 40 strings, and they made a very vital sound. Given the size of ensemble, they brought a surprisingly rhythmic bounce to the work with a real sense of joy in the perkier moments. The sense of power and strength they gave the music was perhaps not quite in the current modern period-style Haydn we are often used to, but  the combination of vitality and rhythmic impetus ensured the performance was never heavy.

Making a very present sound, the sense that the players were themselves discovering the music was completely entrancing. Goetzel and his players really brought out the dance-based feel to much of the music, and many of the items were giving a lovely dance-like rhythmic impetus so that we frequently enjoyed some really catchy rhythms and vivid details.

The work interleaves arias, ensembles and choruses with recitatives and there is much vivid word painting in Haydn's writing, to match Swieten's libretto (perhaps more than Haydn's really wanted). A special word must go here the harpsichord and solo cello in the recitatives, both of whom performed stylishly. During the some of the orchestral recitatives the strings did not perhaps always achieve quite the perfect unity in the busier passages, but this was more than compensated for by the fact that every note seemed to mean something and Goetzel clearly encouraged them to highly characterise the music's depictions of the text. Throughout the work, I was repeatedly struck by the real fineness of the wind playing with all contributing some lovely solos.

Miah Persson, Ian Bostridge, Duncan Rock, Sascha Goetzel, Salzburg Bach Choir, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra - Borusan Istanbul Filarmoni Orkestrasi - Photograph Ozge Balkan
Miah Persson, Ian Bostridge, Duncan Rock, Sascha Goetzel,
Salzburg Bach Choir, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
Borusan Istanbul Filarmoni Orkestrasi - Photograph Ozge Balkan
Miah Persson made a beautifully poised soprano soloist. (The Istanbul programme did not give the soloists the names which Van Swieten allocated to them, and in fact the work does treat the soloists as archetypes rather than as rounded characters.). Her singing had a lovely ease and freedom throughout the range with some lovely floated lines, whilst giving a vivid sense of character. And she also demonstrated a lovely fluency in the busier passage-work, ensuring that her whole performance was of a piece.

Ian Bostridge brought his familiar intensity and care for the words to the tenor solos. But this was always done through the music and Bostridge combined intensity, with a clear sense of Haydn's line and a not inconsiderable sense of style. He gave a real feeling of delicacy to some of the music, whilst singing with great power in others, ensuring the real mean of the text was conveyed.

Duncan Rock had taken over the baritone solo at relatively short notice and had learned the part specially. I only found this out after the concert, and Rock's performance gave not inkling that this was a first time. He sang with an admirable combination of firmness and ease, making the solo part sound as if it was all completely in the centre of his voice. He did not neglect the words either, and we had moments of real verbal drama.

There is a lot of ensemble work, and the three soloists made a finely balanced group and their sense of balance and interaction was one of the joys of the performance. All seemed to respond to the vital and very present sound of the orchestra, and this was overly a highly characterful account of the work, but one combined with great lyric beauty.

 Salzburg Bach Choir singing with Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra - Photograph Ozge Balkan
 Salzburg Bach Choir
Photograph Ozge Balkan
Though the chorus was important, Haydn's use of his choral forces was not as great as it could have been. Haydn was influenced by the oratorios of Handel, but Haydn brought an enlightenment sense of balance to the structure of the work and the chorus gets only two or three moments when they can really show off. But throughout the piece Salzburg Bach Choir formed and intensely vital component in the performance. It is always a joy to hear German choral works sung by German speaking choirs, their sense of the power of the words really came over. Like the orchestra the choral singers brought a comparative sense of rhythmic vitality to the choral writing, and made a very present sound. The storm in Summer gave them great scope for their dramatic talents as did the hunt and the praise of wine in Autumn. The hunt was in fact an opportunity for the whole ensemble, with the wind players giving us some suitable sounding raspberries during the hunt music.

The work was performed with just a 10 minute comfort break between Summer and Autumn during which Goetzel and his players stayed on stage. The audience, without printed librettos, clearly listened to the music with concentrated intensity throughout the performance.

Sascha Goetzel was very much the fons et origo of the performance, both controlling and encouraging his players and giving the singers the space to allow them to develop. This was one of the least dogmatic performances that I have seen, with all joining to give a real sense of the rhetoric and character of Haydn's work. Overall this was a very special occasion, and like the orchestra's appearance at the BBC Proms last year, a very real milestone in its presence on the international orchestral stage. I look forward to returning to Istanbul in the future to hear the orchestra again.
This is one of a group of articles planned, arising from my trip to Istanbul. An overview of the orchestra's work with an interview with their CEO is already on the blog, with an interview with Sascha Goetzel to follow.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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