Thursday 7 March 2019

Haydn’s The Seasons at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Choir produced a grand, memorable and unbeatable performance under Vladimir Jurowski

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791)
Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791)
Haydn The Season; Sophie Bevan, Mark Padmore, Andrew Foster Williams, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski; Royal Festival Hall  
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 2 March 2019 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Maestro Jurowski was on top of his game conducting Haydn’s The Seasons which, hopefully, will help to accelerate this neglected and exciting work to a much wider public

Born in an era when Nature seemed to have touched every part of one’s life, Haydn died in an age of revolution and in his final masterpiece, The Seasons - a joyous and uplifting work painting an irresistibly-tuneful panorama of 18th-century life and love in all its bustling earthy exuberance - captures the mood and mystery of this century in a fascinating and compelling way as it focuses upon winter storms and whistling ploughmen, hymns of praise and booze-fuelled revelry as well as a host of rousing choruses.

In fact, The Seasons (a sequel to The Creation) was inspired by Haydn’s time in London and written especially to appeal to British audiences. I’ve heard it a few times over the past few years, the first time by a good and spirited performance by the Britten-Pears Orchestra at Snape Maltings Concert Hall featuring Katherine Broderick, Kevin Conners and Philip Carmichael as soloists.

Not too dissimilar to the pairings of Mendelssohn’s St Paul and Elijah and Elgar’s The Kingdom and The Dream of Gerontius, The Seasons lies in the shadow of The Creation. Although the work was well received at its first performance in 1801, sadly its success never really lived up to that of The Creation of 1798. In the ensuing years Haydn continued to lead oratorio performances for charitable causes but it was usually The Creation that was the favoured choice of work.

The libretto came from the pen of Baron Gottfried van Swieten (responsible, too, for The Creation), an Austrian nobleman, who based his text upon extracts from The Seasons by Scottish-born poet, James Thomson. It was published in 1730 and deemed one of the earliest, longest and finest Nature poems in the English language. Haydn - who took two years to complete the work - found the composition process heavy going mainly because of poor health and also because he found the libretto rather taxing

The Seasons (just like The Creation) received a dual première: first for the aristocracy (Schwarzenberg Palace, Vienna, 24th April 1801) and then for the public (Redoutensaal, Vienna, 19th May 1801).

Therefore, this performance of The Seasons was more than welcomed and proved a real treat with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (founded by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1932) and the London Philharmonic Choir (so well trained by Neville Creed) in a thrilling and exhilarating performance at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 2 March 2019 as part of their Isle of Noises series which focuses on composers that have been influenced in their work by their connection to the British Isles and, of course, Haydn was a regular visitor to our shores. The trio of soloists - Sophie Bevan (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor) and Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone) - would be hard to beat.

The soloists were lyrical to the extreme and exceptional in their respective roles with their voices reflecting (and conjuring up) the true rustic nature and passing of the years of the Austrian peasantry highlighted by the last movement of ‘Winter’ opening with a solemn (and reflective) recitative by Andrew Foster-Williams: ‘Now pale, this year begins to fade, and cold the mists form round about … the winter with its dismal storms now rushes forth … and Nature fill’d with anxious care.’ Such thoughtful words delivered by Mr Foster-Williams in a quiet and thoughtful way.

And in ‘Spring’ the LPO Chorus sang so beautifully and serenely the opening chorus that laid down the credentials to this absolutely adorable work ‘Come, gentle Spring! The gift of Heaven, come! with Haydn’s score capturing the true essence of the text whilst in ‘Summer’ Sophie Bevan’s aria ‘What refreshment to the senses, what a comfort to the heart!’ was delicately sung and extremely well phrased by a singer I’ve long admired while the chorus once again delivered the goods in a robust account of a summer thunderstorm and the fear that the elements instil in each one of us.

As far as choruses go, I guess it’s ‘Autumn’ that delivers one of the work’s most rousing and most memorable with the Hunting Song featuring four horn players (divided and positioned either side of stage) re-enacting the huntsman’s cry in rallying the troops with Haydn’s score racing to the pace of the hunt culminating in a thrilling and frenzy climax when the stag is eventually trapped for the kill.

And the noisy drinking chorus in the same movement ‘The wine is here, the barrels are fill’d’ witnessed Maestro Jurowski putting all of his weight into getting the best out of his orchestral and choral forces that was simply a joy to listen to especially in the comfort of the Royal Festival Hall which Sir Thomas Beecham once referred to as a ‘night-club’ and went on to say that he much preferred the Royal Albert Hall. C’est la vie!

A wonderful aria unfolded, too, in ‘Winter’ - ‘The trav’ler stands perplex’d, uncertain and unsure’ - delivered by Mark Padmore in a heartfelt and sensitive manner while the work came to a soaring and exuberant conclusion with a double chorus and the trio of soloists engaged in an elongated ‘Amen’.

Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809): The Seasons 
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Choral masterpieces coming up from the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall comprise Verdi’s Requiem and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass under Edward Gardner which, incidentally, received its first British performance in my home town of Norwich at the 1930 Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Music Festival in St Andrew’s Hall. The Daily Mail commented that ‘Norfolk people, known for their placidity, were not to be expected to capture the spirit of boisterous Bohemian rustics.’ The LPO’s choral season continues with Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (The Resurrection) under Vladimir Jurowski, Elgar’s The Apostles under Mark Elder, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with Marin Alsop and Fauré’s Requiem under Bertrand de Billy.

To get the full picture of the LPO’s season at the Royal Festival Hall log on to

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Neapolitan revival: Rossini's Elizabeth in a rare staging from English Touring Opera  - opera review
  • Glitter and sparkle: The Merry Widow at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Creating a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland: Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin  - interview
  • Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★★) - concert review
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
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  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
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  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
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