Tuesday 13 June 2017

Listening with new ears: Haydn's 'The Seasons' from Paul McCreesh

McCreesh, Gabrieli - Haydn - The Seasons
Haydn The Seasons; Carolyn Sampson, Jeremy Ovenden, Andrew Foster-Williams, National Forum of Music Choir, Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra, Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh; Winged Lion Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A fresh approach to Haydn's second oratorio heightens the work's drama

This is the fourth of Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli's collaborations on Winged Lion Records with forces from Wroclaw in Poland and each recording (Berlioz' Requiem, Mendelssohn's Elijah and Britten's War Requiem) has brought an element of re-thinking. This new disc of Haydn's The Season is no different.

Paul McCreesh conducts the National Forum of Music Choir, Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra, Gabrieli Consort and Players, and soloists Carolyn Sampson, Jeremy Ovenden and Andrew Foster-Williams. the oratorio is recorded in English, though not in the version produced at the time of the work's first publication but a new English version by Paul McCreesh.

For this performance McCreesh has returned to Haydn's performances of the work in Vienna with the Tonkünstler Society. Whilst in other performances Haydn used a varying numbers of performers, for the Vienna performances he always used large forces and much of the musical material survives. So we have nearly 70 string players, triple woodwind, one contra-bassoon, doubled trumpets and timpani, a forte piano and ten horns. The balance with choir is interesting with 70 singers, a smaller group than might have been anticipated. Though the surviving parts have little in the way of solo/tutti markings McCreesh has used a concertino and a ripieno group to give delicacy to some passages. The full orchestra tends to support the chorus and to come in at climaxes.

The results are wonderfully dramatic as the opening of the introduction demonstrates.
McCreesh achieves maximum drama without the otiose bombast associated with some large scale performances from earlier eras. McCreesh uses his forces to bring out the character of the work, and it is this freshness and character which are the prime qualities of the recording. McCreesh clearly relishes the sheer range of colours which the period instruments are able to bring to Haydn's music, this is a recording which is full of colour. And whilst there suavely phrased passages, there are also some wonderfully rumbustious ones as well.

I have to confess that Haydn's The Seasons has never been one of my favourite oratorios. Mark Berry's booklet note talks of Haydn suffering, for posterity, for not being Mozart, and in in my case with an oratorio like The Seasons you could add that he suffers for not being Handel.

By rediscovering the work's essential qualities and not trying for portentousness, McCreesh has enabled me to enjoy the work far more for its own qualities. We don't really think of Haydn as a descriptive composer, and Berry suggests that it was Baron van Swieten (the librettist) who was more enthusiastic in this line. But here, these little descriptive twiddles come out charmingly.

The three soloists are all lyric voices, their arias and ensembles accompanied by the concertino group, thus giving us the best of both worlds. Not luxuriant voices perhaps, but each singer matches the orchestral players for combining freshness, charm and vivacity. All are alert to the text which comes over admirably, the choir gives a fine, bright and lithe sound, whilst matching the orchestra at climaxes, but the relative balance allows the orchestral detail to really come over in the choral passages.

Some period instrument performances simply re-work a piece into a pre-conceived image, but here McCreesh has enabled us to listen to Haydn's The Seasons with new ears.

Franz Josef Hadyn (1732-1809) - The Seasons [133.08]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
National Forum of Music Choir
Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Recorded at the National Forum of Music, Wroclaw, 20-23 June 2016
Available from Amazon.

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