Usher in Summer with the London Symphony in Haydn's The Seasons

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A performance of Haydn's The Seasons is an unfortunately rare event these days. The great 1801 oratorio has been eclipsed by Vivaldi's ubiquitous Four Seasons, based on the same subject matter, and by Haydn's more popular oratorio, The Creation. And yet, The Seasons is arguably more profound in conception than the former and certainly more varied and colorful than the latter. That being said, those who take time to hear a new recording by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Colin Davis are in for a treat.

The Seasons is divided into four “cantatas” according to the time of year, and Haydn deploys a vast assortment of picturesque touches throughout. Summer includes a thunderstorm characterized by lightning flashes in the flute and thunderclaps in the timpani while Autumn is highlighted by a series of vivid hunting scenes underscored by blasts of horns, shouting hunters, barking dogs and quacking ducks. The catalog of pastoral effects places Haydn as a kind of proto-film composer.

Haydn also has a clever, referential side, quoting his Surprise Symphony in the Spring section and dropping several Mozart works including the Requiem and Symphony No. 40. Yet it’s not all clever effects: to summon the austere bleakness of winter Haydn develops a near-impressionistic tone painting that sets up a tenor aria about a lost wanderer and his mounting anxiety.

The entire 2 1/2-hour work is told through the lives and characters of three peasants: Jane, Simon and Luke, performed here by the ebullient vocal trio of Miah Persson, Jeremy Ovenden and Andrew Foster-Williams. The London Symphony Chorus brings a hearty sound as well as clear diction and balance to the work’s many choral sections. The LSO forces play vigorously and accurately under the direction of Colin Davis, who makes a fine case for hearing this piece on modern instruments.

Haydn's The Seasons
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis
Miah Persson (soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass)
LSO Live SACD Hybrid LSO0708 (2 discs)
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Q2's Album of the Week:

A longtime proponent of new works and living composers, Bruce Levingston has an enviable touch at the keyboard and an equally commendable ear when it comes to programming. In Heart Shadow, the first of three albums to come from the pianist via Sono Luminus records, Levingston captures the exhilaration and pedigree of his live performances in a triptych of works that complement an old classic with two premiere recordings, all of which take inspiration from 19th- and 20th-century literature.

Lisa Bielawa’s Elegy-Portrait opens the disc with an intense and brooding passion derived from Rainer Maria Rilke and capturing all of the poet’s trademark expressive and haunting loneliness. Conversely, Charles Wuorinen’s title track shows the composer returning to the works of Salman Rushdie (he adapted Haroun and the Sea of Stories into an eponymous opera that premiered in 2004). While Bielawa’s manipulation of the piano gives way to an unsettling solitude, Wuorinen’s solo work is more seductive and intriguing—taken together they show two different perspectives on a lone figure. Moreover, they also provide an added layer into the album’s opening work, Schumann’s Kreisleriana which also uses the single instrument to expose multiple layers of an E. T. A. Hoffmann hero. Maybe it’s the unusual ménage-a-trois, but Levingston’s interpretation of this rep standard is a must, regardless of how overcrowded your Schumann shelf may already be.

Bruce Levingston, piano
Heart Shadow