Cultural politics in Haydn's day allowed scope for the justification of stag-hunting, the acceptance of aristocratic sexual predators, and a broad consensus that a woman's place was in the home. The world has turned far since the first performance of the composer's oratorio The Seasons in 1801, so far indeed that any modern attempt to set the same subject would surely struggle to comply with the boundaries of political correctness and accommodate the loss of life's seasonal patterns. Old Haydn clearly had great fun in fashioning a work in which the sounds and flavours of everything from April showers and summer sunrises to autumnal booze-ups and February frosts are described in vivid musical detail.
His work benefited from another lost tradition, that of sponsorship from wealthy donors who picked up the bill for the large band demanded by the score and encouraged the composer to indulge his imagination.
Helmuth Rilling's interpretation, impressively shaped from memory, gave a symphonic integrity to each of Haydn's four seasons, a strategy that occasionally swapped surface colour for sure-footed dramatic pacing. The approach was at its best in "Autumn", driven by the conductor's obvious affection for the composer's infinitely subtle range of expression and thrilling set-piece choruses.
Rilling's work was complemented here and throughout the performance by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, an ensemble driven by a corporate desire for clarity, and the youthful energy of the Wiener Singakademie, admirably well prepared by Heinz Ferlesch. A few ragged choral and orchestral entries, including one howler in the work's final bars of the conductor's making, detracted little from the overall impression of a performance stamped with lusty Austrian vigour.
The band's sackbut-like trombones, martial timpani and inspired wind-playing underlined the vitality and character of the score without upstaging the soloists. Words mattered in this performance, especially so to Neal Davies as the trusty farmer Simon. The bass-baritone weight of his voice never obscured the lightness of his diction, sounding effortlessly natural even in the upper and lower extremities of his solos. Davies understands that periods of "operatic" writing in a classical oratorio do not demand blustering outbursts to register; his well-tempered, thoughtful yet passionate reading of Haydn's music was a masterclass in refined singing.
John Mark Ainsley likewise employed subtle artistry to powerful effect, especially so in his rapt delivery of the cavatina "Dem Druck erlieget die Natur". The light, lyric coloratura voice of Simone Nold, deputising at very short notice for Susan Gritton, offered echoes of the young Elly Ameling, the laser-like accuracy of her intonation working to moving advantage in "Welche Labung für die Sinne".
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