BBC Proms reviews

Prom 14: Handel and Haydn Society of Boston/Norrington – The Seasons @ Royal Albert Hall, London

23 July 2007

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

The programme of Prom 14 noted that The Seasons is ‘much loved and frequently performed’. Perhaps so, but Haydn’s pastoral oratorio, written around 1800, has been consistently viewed as a diverting but lightweight younger brother to The Creation, the composer’s masterpiece of two years before.And the work’s libretto is arguably tawdry when compared to the sincere reverence of what had come previously.

But Haydn’s power of composition was at its peak. The pictorial depiction of the four seasons – chilly minor key textures evoking Winter, pizzicato strings and sensational timpani rolls heralding the arrival of a violent Summer storm – encloses spontaneous melodic and dramatic creation of great imagination and originality. Autumn especially is a gem: a stag hunt, vividly described by brazen horn calls and swooping, stabbing trombone motifs, gives way to the most sparklingly contrapuntal of boozy drinking choruses. Throughout, landscapes, weather, people and animals all spring vivaciously from the score through Haydn’s potent orchestrations. The whole is a tad elongated, but in a great performance, one hardly notices.

The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, under their Artistic Advisor Sir Roger Norrington, drove Monday evening’s performance impetuously forward. The orchestra always strove for new textures (at the opening of Winter, the chilly violins, brushings of flute colour and subliminal horn chords were especially suggestive) without ever overpowering the human voice.

The period horns struggled a tad in the stag hunt, but elsewhere brass were forthright, strings crisp and pointed. One problem was the occasional inaudibility of obbligato passages, but I think that the Albert Hall acoustic was to blame. The society’s choir was very musical though, from where I was sat, they sounded a little reticent at times. No such criticism could apply to Norrington, who frequently spun around to face his audience upon the last note of a movement. I found the gesture superfluous and distracting.

The three soloists were mixed. Soprano Sally Matthews is fabulous pretty much whatever she does, and here her delivery was a masterclass of legato, phrasing and expressive timbre. Her ability to produce a seemingly disembodied, vibrato-less line and let it hang in the air is uncanny. She edged to the bottom of the pitch at a couple of cadential figures, but no matter. Tenor James Gilchrist has a similarly gorgeous voice – open-throated, easily produced and evenly resonant. But this was not his best day, and his expressive delivery of individual ideas (hushed, hollow piano tones were much used) could interfere with the musical line. And the bass of Jonathan Lemalu, though secure in intonation and line, lacked much character.

Distractingly, one extremely little girl ran from the Arena, crying, midway through the concert’s first half. Did the mother really expect someone so young to appreciate two long hours of Haydn, let alone to stand through it?

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Prom 14: Handel and Haydn Society of Boston/Norrington – The Seasons @ Royal Albert Hall, London