In the winter of his life Haydn understood why the seasons were such a concise metaphor for the human experience: “The blooms of your brief Spring are over/The power of your Summer is exhausted/Your Autumn soon fades into old age/Then comes the pallid Winter/pointing to an open grave.”
But what is so uplifting about Haydn’s portrait is that there is never a hint of bitterness. His seasons express an uncynical love of life and are firmly rooted in the soil – soil fertilised not just by sun but by “noble toil”.
It’s something that Haydn knew a lot about – as does John Eliot Gardiner, who conducted the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir in this superlative performance. Initially it seemed a crazy way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, sitting in the concrete bunker of a metropolitan concert hall, but as The Seasons unfolded, I had no desire to be anywhere else. Haydn’s oratorio is a rarity, and it’s even rarer to hear it interpreted with such natural energy and lack of flab.
The Seasons is about nature’s beneficence and man’s unpompous place in it; about the joy of the harvest, the hunt and wine-making; about barking bassoons, mooing trombones, buzzing violins and the hymn-like harmony of human voices. The thunderstorm Beethoven was to conjure out of the Pastoral Symphony is already there; so are the forest murmurs of Weber’s Der Freischütz, without the dark overtones.
In short, despite winter’s “ill-humoured days”, The Seasons is an idealised portrait of life. The relationships it depicts are innocent. Unlike Mozart some years earlier, Haydn’s world-view still embraces the ancien régime: there’s no other way to explain his meek acceptance of a Christian finale, so tangential to all that has preceded it.
I enjoyed Dietrich Henschel’s Evangelist-like narration, singing off the words; James Gilchrist’s Lucas and Rebecca Evans’s Hannah were less inclined to interpret. But the key lay in Gardiner’s expressive command, irradiating Haydn’s positivity.
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