Haydn Die Jahreszeiten
That Haydn's The Seasons has not enjoyed the level of popularity of its predecessor, The Creation, doubtless owes much to its subject matter. Yet if there's a sense here of Haydn attempting to repeat a winning formula, and if its well-worn topic did not inspire librettist Gottfried van Swieten to any great heights, there's no question that the portrayal of the passing year among the Austrian peasantry suited Haydn right down to the ground. Composed in his final years of creative activity, it reveals an imagination not only still beguiling in its charm and freshness, but also possessed of all its old inquisitive drive. And lest you should think that inspired tone-painting is all the work's about (in places you do begin to suspect that Haydn could have set a shopping list to music with success) there are moments of intense personal significance too, such as the bass aria from Winter, ''Erblicke hier, betorte Mensch'', in which the composer ponders wistfully his own, long gone creative spring, summer and autumn. Nor is The Seasons, completed in 1801 and standing at the threshold of musical romanticism, just a splendid anachronism; throughout there are hints of the preoccupations of the succeeding generation, from the atmospheric orchestral openings to each season, to the frequently encountered folk elements, to the manifest joy in the beauties of the natural world.
None of these points is missed by John Eliot Gardiner in a performance of predictably high quality. As usual the Monteverdi Choir sing with discipline and definition, Gardiner drawing sharply etched textures from them in the fugues and inspiring untiring characterization in their various drinking, hunting and spinning choruses. At 28-strong, it's not a large choir—especially in the context of the giant performance style associated with Haydn's oratorios—but it displays all its customary energy and assurance. The orchestra is modest too, though with 31 strings it's a bit bigger than most period bands; but if some of the textural clarity and lightness one associates with old instruments is thereby lost, there is ample compensation in the playing itself, which comes into its own not only in the four seasonal introductions but also in the many descriptive details— encompassing rising suns and snuffling spaniels—all of which are executed with a flair guaranteed to bring a smile even to the most cynical listener's face.
The soloists, too, are a constant pleasure. Barbara Bonney's singing has warmth and charm, while Anthony Rolfe Johnson's demonstrates again how at home his mellifluous voice is in this repertoire. Their Autumn love duet is a delight, and elsewhere both show impressive poise and lightness of touch—listen to Bonney in the eerie stillness before Summer's storm, or Johnson describing the small hours of the morning shortly before that. Andreas Schmidt, too, sings with clarity and intelligence, though perhaps he could have brought a little more character to his performances. This is a minor complaint, however, and his ''Erblicke hier'' is certainly well done.
Like Dorati on Decca—but unlike the other current CD versions of The Seasons—Gardiner gives us the more interesting uncut original openings to Autumn and Winter, and also uniquely offers the later, more familiar revisions (which Haydn did actually sanction) as an appendix. He also provides the version for divided violas and cellos (without violins) of the opening to Summer, a movement Haydn presumably only rewrote for an orthodox string section because it proved too difficult for the lower string players of his day. For Gardiner and his forces such problems are unknown, however, and they are thus left free to provide us with this performance worthy of unreserved recommendation.'