Haydn’s The Seasons at Barbican Hall

McCreech and
his performers painted a collection of charming, detailed pictures of rural
life, belying Hadyn’s own professed distaste for the text’s invitations to
‘word-painting’. The composer famously described what he considered the
overtly mimetic sections depicting cocks growing, frogs croaking and so on as
“Frenchified trash”, but here such sonic images brought much delight and
were perfectly balanced with the more abstract reflections contained within
Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s libretto.

After their success with The Creation (for which van Swieten had
adapted and arranged episodes from Genesis and John Milton’s epic,
Paradise Lost), the impetus for a new work seem to have come largely
from van Swieten, who eagerly proposed another possible English language source
to Haydn – John Thomson’s poem, ‘The Seasons’. The original comprises
more than 4300 lines of poetry of a philosophical nature; Van Swieten selected,
revised, re-ordered and translated, focus on the descriptive passages and
producing a rather banal libretto, but one which did accord with the spirit of
Enlightenment optimism, and which offered the composer much opportunity for
illustrative detail.

However, The Seasons did not come easily to the once prolific
Haydn. He reportedly found the text irritatingly simplistic; but, perhaps more
significantly, the aging composer complained of weariness, lamenting his waning
imaginative resources and “feeble memory and the unstrung state of my nerves
so completely crush me to earth, that I fall into the most melancholy

The Seasons received its first performance in a private venue at
the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna in April 1801. A month later it was
rapturously received by the Viennese public. However, it was less celebrated in
France and England, where Haydn had previously has such success and renown, and
H. C. Robbins Landon has observed that this lack of interest may have heralded
the decline and fall to the near oblivion that Haydn’s music would suffer in
the nineteenth century.

Naturally, The Seasons falls into four parts. To begin, the
“softest zephyrs, warm and mild” herald the rebirth of the dormant natural
world, following a startling, large-scale orchestral introduction where
explosive timpani strikes and syncopated rhythms evoke the shuddering passage
from winter to spring. There are in fact instrumental ‘prefaces’ to each of
the seasonal quarters; and the large Gabrieli Consort, with a rich brass
ensemble of four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and full strings and
woodwind, created varied, captivating soundscapes. Sweet flutes evoked
spring’s mild airs during the opening accompanied recitative; gorgeously
opulent horns rang triumphantly, first in Summer as the wakeful herdsman
gathered up his cheerful flock, and later, joined by trombones, in a blaze of
colour and energy in Autumn’s closing chorus, as “sound of the chase in the
forests resound”. String playing was animated and nimble; accurate intonation
characterised the unison chromaticisms which evoke the grey dawn indicating the
beginning of Summer, while a glistening tremolo haze signalled that season’s
fiercely blazing sun which “pours through clear and cloudless skies/A torrent
of fire on the meadows below”. Textures were unfailingly crisp and clear, the
four-note motif upon which Winter’s bleak Adagio introduction is founded
wonderfully suggesting the wisps of swirling, freezing fog whipped up by the
bracing wind.

The Seasons features three principal characters—Simon, a farmer
(bass/baritone); Hanne, his daughter (soprano); and Lukas, a country lad
(tenor) — who ruminate on aspects of peasant life, narrating personal
anecdotes and reflecting on more abstract ideas.

As Simon, Christopher Purves’ full, round baritone carried the text
powerfully to the furthest reaches of the Barbican Hall, every word of
recitative crisply articulated and nuanced. In Autumn, the vigour and vitality
of his singing inspired the chorus in their hymn to the joys of ‘industry’
(‘Thus nature rewards our toil!’). His aria, ‘See there on yonder open
field’, was similarly enlivened and theatrical, as McCreesh judged the
accelerandi and dramatic pauses that depict the dog as he “races in
pursuit of his prey, then stops at once, and freezes, motionless as stone”,
and the “terror swift” of the bird who takes wing “to escape
th’approaching foe”, to perfection. In Winter, Purves effectively brought
about a surprising change of mood in ‘Consider then, misguided man, the
picture of thy life unfolds’, as the vivid immediacy of “icy blasts of
piercing cold” are replaced by more abstract reflections upon the transitory
nature of man’s life, leading to the final double chorus of praise to God for
his gift of nature and its power of renewal.

Lukas’ cavatina, ‘Exhausted nature, faint ing sinks’,
depicting the dazzling, debilitating heat of the midday summer sun, is one of
the most beautiful numbers in the oratorio, and Allan Clayton’s serene,
controlled pianissimo, supported by subdued low strings and gentle
falling figures for flute and oboe, was supremely affecting. Clayton was
unfailing alert to textual detail: at the start of Summer, the line “In
darkness shrouded, steals the dawn, in pearly mantle
wonderfully expressed the intense anticipation and hope as “the weary night
retires”. Lukas’ Winter aria, ‘The wand’rer stands perplexed’,
describing a traveller who falters and loses his way in the drifting snow, was
especially poignant. Elsewhere Clayton’s fresh tone emphasised the works
frequent affinity with folksong and Singspiel, as in the song of joy
—a charming Andante dialogue between Lukas and Hanne — concluding Spring,
which creates a mood of bucolic simplicity and delight recalling the unaffected
world of Papageno and Papagena.

Christiane Karg’s Hanne was without affectation; a modest peasant girl,
her well-centred soprano entertained the women spinning by the winter fire in
an enchanting strophic Lied, as bubbling viola motifs depicted the
“whirring” and “purring” of the spiralling wheel. Karg brought passion
to her tone when joining with Lukas to relish the “bliss of love’s sweet
rapture”; and she was not afraid to create a shriller sound to convey the
“fear and trembling” of the pretty maid who fears the predatory nobleman
but, as in all good folktales, uses her wile and wits to get the upper hand.

The principals are joined by a chorus of country folk, who provide glorious
general hymns of praise at climactic moments, and form a dramatic cast of
peasants, hunters, revellers and spinners. The Gabrieli Consort sang lustily
and lustrously, relishing the more operatic moments of the score. The
earth-shattering summer storm, and the exuberant hunting scene depicting the
thrill of the chase and the riotous inebriation with which its success is
celebrated, were impressively arresting. The Handelian fugues which conclude
many of the seasonal sections were dynamic and uplifting.

All credit to McCreesh for inspiring his players and singers to perform with
such startling energy and vitality. But, the moods were varied: equally
striking was the clearing of the summer storm and the tolling of evening bells
calling man and nature to rest. Despite the apparent increasing frailty and
exhaustion of its composer, in this invigorating performance of The
, there was evidence only of youthful vigour and joyful

Claire Seymour

image_description=Franz Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1792
product_title=Franz Joseph Haydn: The Seasons
product_by=Gabrieli Consort & Players. Paul McCreesh, conductor. Christiane Karg, soprano; Allan Clayton, tenor; Christopher Purves, baritone. Barbican Hall, London, Saturday 14th January 2010.
product_id=Above: Franz Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1792.