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Review: Joseph Haydn ‘The Seasons’: Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus West Road Concert Hall: 16 March

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Of the two great oratorios which belong to Haydn’s later years it is ‘The Creation’ (1798) which tends perhaps to be better known and more often performed.

Seeking to redress the balance, Conductor Tim Redmond with the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, delivered a spellbinding and revelatory performance of ‘The Seasons’ (1801) to the delight of the West Road Concert Hall audience on Saturday night.

Both compositions reflect a contemporary interest in Enlightenment science: ‘The Creation’ in how things came to be in the first place, ‘The Seasons’ an interest in the phenomenal world itself.

The story is told by three rural characters, Simon, Lucas and Hannah who give accounts of the various ‘goings-on’ of nature (what used to be called ‘natura naturans’ or ‘nature naturing’), but these accounts always underpinned by a profound theological structure that enables us all ‘to look through nature up to nature’s God’.

Haydn’s immediate inspiration for the oratorio was ‘The Seasons’ by the pre-Romantic James Thomson (1700-48), the Scottish poet who wrote the lyrics for ‘Rule Britannia’. Haydn introduces many examples of the kind of word-painting (‘ut picture poesis’) Thomson goes in for, when he makes his music imitate the sound of melting torrents, a bubbling brooklet, the sound of a quail or a sniffing hound on the trail. But he also introduces a more ‘Romantic’ emotional response as when the ‘Sublime’ replaces the ‘Beautiful’ in ‘Spring’ (’Wonderful, bountiful, infinite God’) with its echoes of Handel in ‘Messiah’.

Three outstanding soloists contributed to the glorious sounds of the huge combined orchestra and chorus involved in Saturday’s production. Baritone Stephen Gadd (last-minute replacement for the indisposed Milan Siljanov) stamped his authority on the role of Simon, from the stern opening of Winter’s last gasp to the hauntingly effective conclusion where his fading voice, reflecting on how the joys of yesteryear are ‘vanish’d, as a dream’, paused poignantly before the assertion, ‘Only Virtue lasts’.

The powerful voice of Tenor, James Way (Lucas), became appropriately diminished in a gripping and beautifully sung narrative of the wanderer lost in snow; the chill he created almost palpable and in striking contrast with the warmth and humour of his many contributions throughout.

Not least of these were his duets with celebrated Soprano, Rebecca Bottone whose beautiful and seemingly effortless clarity of tone shone as much in her treatment of serious matters like constancy in love, as in the sportive little winter’s tale with which she entertains the cottage dwellers towards the end of the oratorio.

Haydn’s characteristic playfulness is very much apparent in his endlessly inventive liveliness, melody and wit. In the wine-bibbing episode with which ‘Autumn’ concludes, he indicated in the score that the percussion could join in ‘if it liked’. This cue for improvisation was taken up by the Philharmonic Chorus whose particular contribution to the fun involved making a bit of a row with bottles and spoons.

The overall impression one took away from Saturday night’s concert was of a work not exactly neglected, but one that has been seriously under-represented on the concert platform; a work of great maturity from a composer wholly aware of the potential in every element of vocal, orchestral and musical composition. The Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra, its Chorus and soloists proved to be exactly the forces necessary to bring to ‘The Seasons’ the kind of prominence in performance it deserves.


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