Say what you like about The Seasons, but Haydn’s pastoral oratorio is a jubilant, joyfully virtuosic and often highly profound tour through Classical vocal writing.
In the right hands, it stands alongside The Creation as one of the great vocal works of its period, and those hands – John Eliot Gardiner‘s to be precise – were what lit the fire of Sunday afternoon’s performance at the Barbican.
Yes, we all know by now that Gardiner is a miracle (take his Bach Cantata series as evidence), but the man’s unerring sense of drama and vast overview still take the breath away.
His pacing of the Summer storm was worth the entry fee alone and, throughout, Haydn’s dense orchestration, taut rhythms and great understanding of dramatic contrast found their match in an interpretation teeming with insight, unclouded by superfluous gesture. The English Baroque Soloists lacked some clarity in the Introduction to Spring, with violins parting too often and lines not so much entwining as sticking together, but from here the band went from strength to strength. Their sound is precise, yet hefty enough to fill the Barbican’s unforgiving acoustic in Haydn’s forte climaxes.
The woodwind are not the most dominant, but here their understated approach worked wonders – in the Summer trio, or in the oboe obbligato during Hannah’s first aria. Gardiner conjured the most sensitive textures, with icy strings superbly suggesting the frosted landscape in Winter’s introduction, and who could fail to be roused by the two great choruses in Autumn? If the horns’ prominence in the depiction of the hunt revealed a lack of synchronisation, their fearless arrogance was still thrilling. And the band excelled in the rowdy drinking song, with Gardiner coaxing the violins especially into feats of delirious virtuosity. And all this without a mention for The Monteverdi Choir, who pushed and pushed through Haydn’s complex counterpoint and found astonishing security in their coloratura, nowhere more so than in Winter’s final chorus.
The three solo voices were also superb. Soprano Rebecca Evans lost one top note at the end of Spring, but her luxurious tone and willingness to languish in and milk every line for all its worth were hard to ignore. And it was easy to ignore her numerous poorly pitched entry notes given the melodic shaping and creamy coloratura that were sure to follow. Bass Dietrich Henschel was rather pinched at the start; rather dry at the end, but so highly characterful in his delivery that such concerns were soon forgotten. Take his aria in Spring, in which his roughened consonants imaginatively evoked the ploughman’s eager path through the field.
And tenor James Gilchrist provided an unexpected pleasure with his gloriously open throat, ringing tone and absolute security across the dynamic. If a hint of caricature was evident (as it was in the seventh volume of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata series), it was at no obvious detriment to the text, and the shading Gilchrist brought to his opening aria in Summer was every bit as thrilling as his responsive contributions to the ensemble. But then the three voices combined like a dream throughout. It was a truly exciting way to spend an afternoon.