The Seasons has always been a bit of a neglected child compared with The Creation; even Haydn was a little lacklustre about writing it, claiming that Van Swieten’s libretto was banal and prosaic. But, despite himself, Haydn produced a masterpiece of wonderfully human dimensions, throwing himself into the clichés with a delicious playfulness. All of the usual 18th-century bucolic tropes are there in the four linked cantatas, and all of them are finely illustrated by Haydn’s impressive orchestration: from a reedy oboe summoning up a shepherd’s pipes, to thunderous timpani heralding a storm, and thumping strings droning out the fifths of bagpipe-accompanied country dancing.
Paul McCreesh’s direction of his own Gabrieli (formerly The Gabrieli Consort) brought out the best of Haydn’s work. Gabrieli were joined for the evening by players from the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra (with whom they are to make a recording of the piece this month). It was a packed stage, and a very warm evening (with a record number of snapped strings), but the performance was masterly, and wrung every nuance out of the writing: the use of mutes on the strings for the depiction of the enervating heat of a summer noon (“.. and weary, languish man and beast …”) gave an appropriate ‘bleached’ effect to the sound; the raucously played horns (with upturned bells) conjured a hunt before the audience’s eyes; ethereal flutes created the “… downy billows …” of springtime clouds. A particular joy was the brief use of a ten-foot-long baroque contrabassoon to produce a series of magnificently fruity notes for the storm and the calm thereafter.
Not only were the orchestra on top form, but so were the singers. The text was a new English version by McCreesh himself, and it was absolutely spot-on in terms of 18th-century ‘feel’. The choir was the usual excellent Gabrieli group, and their attack was perfect every time, providing a solid tone even above the orchestra at top volume in the storm scene, and raising excitement levels in “Hark, hear the sounds of the chase”. They also demonstrated their percussion skills with tambourines and triangles during the autumnal country dancing!
The three soloists were well chosen and produced just the right mixture of clarity, purity and character that a late-18th-century work demands. Andrew Foster-Williams sang Simon – the bass role, a quasi-priestly figure, who provides moral narrative – with suitably incisive – if slightly arch – gravitas, and really came into his own for the final “Consider then, misguided man …”, a comparison of human life to the seasons. The lovers Lucas and Hannah were sung by the tenor Jeremy Ovenden and the soprano Carolyn Sampson: Ovenden’s light lyric quality invoked a charming pastoral touch for “The wakeful herdsman …”, but was equally at home with the urgent drama describing a hound chasing birds in “See lo on yonder field …”; Sampson’s voice was a delight – pure and bell-like, but with the tiniest vibrato to add richness, whether it was singing the coquettish “A noble squire …”, the simple country maid in “O what charming sights …” or providing delectable sparkle in “How refreshing to the senses …”. A recording to be keenly anticipated!