When the poet John Clare read the part of James Thompson’s The Seasons which begins ‘Come, lovely Spring’ he recorded that it made his heart “twitter with joy” – and it inspired him to write his own first poem. Two hundred and ten years later, audience members at this performance of Joseph Haydn and Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s version of Thompson’s work were invited to “tweet us your thoughts on the first half…” Those thoughts would probably reflect that if one has to sit through all that country bumpkin stuff – Thompson was not a great poet, and van Swieten only added to his mediocrity – then the only way to do it is when it’s played and sung like this.
Haydn’s work, of course, rises above the text and forms one of the greatest of all oratorios, allowing The London Symphony Orchestra to shine in every department, commandingly overseen by Sir Simon Rattle, whose love for the piece was evident in every bar. Florian Boesch was the strongest of the three soloists: his nuanced delivery of the text allied to his sympathetic characterization and warmth of tone created an entirely credible Simon, and his performance of the great ‘virtue’ aria, ‘Erblicke hier, betörter Mensch’ was as fine as any we’ve heard. Andrew Staples had the unenviable task of replacing the indisposed John Mark Ainsley, but he rose to the occasion with such confidence and sang with such persuasively lovely tone that you would have imagined he had been rehearsing for weeks. His duets with the sweet-toned if at times somewhat subdued Hannah of Monika Eder avoided too much winsomeness – no easy task.
The London Symphony Chorus had been brilliantly trained by Simon Halsey; whether enthusiastically impersonating ‘Country People’ or solemnly commenting on how ‘grenzenlose Seligkeit / wird der Gerechten Lohn’ (‘infinite blessedness rewards the righteous’) the choral singing was superb. There was so much outstanding work from the LSO that it seems unfair not to name every section, but there was particularly fine playing from the oboes (Oliver Stankiewicz, Rosie Jenkins), bassoons (Rachel Gough, Joost Bosdijk) and trombones (Dudley Bright, James Maynard).
The presence of Sir Simon ensured a full house, and it’s a pleasure to note that this was an unusually respectful audience – that is, hacking coughers, crackling programme-twiddlers and scratching note-takers were notably absent, allowing us to savour Haydn’s masterpiece as it should be heard.
The performance was recorded by Sky Arts for broadcast in May.