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Haydn’s Meandering Spaniel, Gardiner’s Meteorological Perfidy

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/15/2009 -  & October 9 (Pisa), 12 (Paris), 17 (New York)
Josef Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons), Hob. XXI.3
Lucy Crowe (Soprano), James Gilchrist (Tenor), Matthew Rose (Bass)
The Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Artistic Director and Conductor)

Okay, Sir John, after a few thousand New Yorkers slogged their way to Carnegie Hall, it’s time for an apology. This slog was a mighty effort, for today we experienced a season of rain, a season of wind, a season of freezing, our neighbors experienced a most untimely season of snow and inclement agony. And there you stood on the dais on the stage of Carnegie Hall with your own orchestra and your own chorus and three British soloists of your choosing. And when do you give us? More damned seasons! (Sigh)

Then again, Haydn’s German setting of a tiresome English paean to nature was hardly a reality show. So since you chose to present us Papa Haydn’s two-hour tone-painting, The Seasons, and since you are the master of “authentic” period playing, you can be forgiven.

More than forgiven. Under Sir John’s direction, this listener experienced enough marvels to make up for the two-hour weather report. Marvel number one, Sir John used the original valveless horns–four of them–to make the hunting song, “Hark! Hark! The Sound of the Horn” more exciting than any slaughter-song has any right to be. Another surprise was the dog-song, the perambulations of “the spaniel, roving the dewy grass, in search of scent this way and that….” Yes indeed, exactly the way my own scatter-legged spaniel wanders from garbage can to garbage can. More important, Sir John made his cellos and basses and bassoon follow the exact canine-journey.

And what was Papa Haydn doing by quoting his own “Surprise” symphony, written a decade before The Seasons? Obviously, Haydn, with public contempt for the libretto, decided to have fun with the music. And that, for the most part is how Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and his Monteverdi Choir handled the entire oratorio.

The orchestra at just over 50 players, and the choir at 36 voices (half of them sopranos) is not terribly big, but their energy and assurance, and the magnificent first chair playing of brass and winds was stunning. Ever the purist, Sir John didn’t cut a single recitative at all. Some of them–with the sounds of frogs, quails, storm (timpani, of course), insects, and sunrises, were well worth it to those who knew German. Others became a bit wearying.

But Sir John never let a moment of those wonderful choruses droop. I had never realized before that every chorus is a unique story in itself. We have a drinking chorus (which Berlioz would have loved), a spinning chorus (Flying Dutchman, anyone?), a hunting chorus out of Weber, and overtures to each season which could have echoed Peter Grimes.

The Seasons also has a few arias which are as good as the best of Mozart. When soprano Lucy Crowe sung “Oh How Pleasing To The Senses”, from the summer season, one imagined it came from Figaro. And when that strong fearless bass Matthew Rose gently warbled about the shepherd herding his sheep, one could forget the Arcadian bromides and rest on the contentment of the music. Tenor James Gilchrist, like the others, was full-throated, straightforward in all his arias.

Yes, there were moments where one felt a certain dreariness, as in the love duet. But this only made the choruses stand out. And while Sir John might have given more attention to the wet, nasty, tempest-driven woes of we mortals, he instead gave us ideal weather, an ideal story, and an ideal aggregation of emotions played with all the gusto it deserved.

Harry Rolnick



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