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Royal Albert Hall
08/08/2001 -  


Joseph Haydn: The Seasons

Simone Nold (Hannah), John Mark Ainsley (Lucas), Neal Davies (Simon)

Helmuth Rilling (conductor)

Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, Wiener Singakademie


Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt -- complete incidental music

Simon Callow (narrator), Bo Skovhus (Peer Gynt), Barbara Bonney (Solveig), Inge Kosmo (Anitra), Wenche Fosse (Ase), Sverre Anke Ousdal (Great Boyg, Button Moulder), Jane Mason (Woman in Green), Eleanor Meynell, Elizabeth Poole, Alison Smart (Herd girls), Simon Birchall (Thief), Stuart MacIntyre (Receiver)

Manfred Honeck (conductor)

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers

Contrasting rarities of orchestral and vocal stage painting on successive nights, both a bit pastoral, one something of a sheep's breakfast, the other possibly a forgotten masterpiece (in spite of very familiar elements), both in stirring performances.

Haydn wrote The Seasons as a follow-up to The Creation at the prompting of his librettist Gottfried van Swieten, and in conscious emulation of Handel's English oratorios. Swieten selected the text from the mixed-form but quasi Virgilian moralizing poem of the same name by James Thomson, a Scottish poet contemporary with Handel. Either Swieten or Haydn missed the point a bit, because L'allegro is probably the closest parallel work of Handel's, but they thought they were writing something like Messiah. The Seasons ends with a sort of Lutheran-Catholic Last Judgement that has echoes of the last part of Messiah. It seems that Haydn really wanted to write a Last judgement, as a reasonably companion piece to The Creation and put as much of it into The Seasons when Swieten decided the work needed a grander, explicitly religious ending.

Swieten also added a couple of songs to the autumn section, a jolly praise of wine and a slightly naughty pseudo-folksong based on a French operetta number. The story told in the latter, and even some of the words in translation, show up in the "genuine" English folksong Lovely Joan (collected by Cecil Sharp), whose earthy but evocative melody Vaughan Williams used as the second theme of his Fantasia on Greensleeves. Haydn's setting is lively, but conventional, as is much of the solo vocal music, though he had the lip to say that Handel's arias weren't much good. But the choruses are almost symphonic, and the orchestral introductions to the sections of the work are powerful, radical even, similar to the depiction of chaos at the start of The Creation.

The Seasons has three solo parts, soprano, tenor and bass. The parts have names assigned, but they are not real characters, more moralizing generalities: Hannah, a lively young girl, Lucas, an optimistic young peasant, and Simon, a wise old farmer, her dad. Lucas and Hannah sing duets about the joys of spring and summer, and say they love each other in autumn, but there are no rivals and no plot, just a reminder from Simon of the importance of hard work (Haydn didn't like that). Simone Nold, standing in at a very late stage for Susan Gritton, was confident, clear and straightforward as Hannah. John Mark Ainsley was perhaps a touch operatic for Lucas, though some of singing was lovely. Neal Davies was bluster-free and vocally agile as the solid Simon, delivering a tour-de-force in the show-off aria that describes the hunting dog, a sort of non-allegorical Va tacito.

Helmuth Rilling also stepped in when the planned conductor, Adam Fischer, had to step in himself at Bayreuth for the late Guiseppe Sinopoli. Rilling is the grand old man of Germanic choral music, but you wouldn't know to look at him. He seemed to be doing very little to produce the always delightful sparking but focussed music from the orchestra and choir. The particular charm of this performance might have been how utterly Viennese Haydn sounded.

Grieg's music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt is of course also deeply rooted in a national tradition. But Ibsen's verse-epic converted into a play is also a post-Enlightenment work, a Norwegian spin on Goethe's Faust, and Grieg incorporates traditional-sounding melodic material into a suitably Wagnerian infrastructure. This performance presented the music as Grieg hoped it would be, complete, with all the spoken and sung texts in place. The narrative, already fragmentary, is mostly lost, but the music and remaining text has a poetic logic, and a kind of symphonic shape: the first two acts present a complex of human and supernatural themes, the third act depicts the death of Peer's mother in a sad, slow movement, the fourth act music is an exotic scherzo and the last act recapitulates some of the previous themes in a pictorial if low-key finale. Although it's not Ibsen's poem or play, the music on its own has the makings of, for example, a silent movie of the complexity of Murnau's Sunrise or for that matter his Faust (which is not Goethe's poem or play either).

Like the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra in The Seasons, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is on musical home turn in Peer Gynt. They too had a substitute conductor, Manfred Honeck, but they gave a dynamic and totally engaging performance. Simon Callow also stepped in for a very ill Paul Scofield and read a mildly jokey narration that duplicated and sometimes contradicted the programme notes, blustering in places but generally making sense with little preparation. The singers were all first rate: Barbara Bonney was infinitely cool and utterly irresistible as the faithful Solveig, moving beyond words in her final, Orcadian sounding, lullaby; Bo Skovhus was fine theatrically, but his one song, the comic but alluring serenade of Anitra, made you wish he had a lot more; Inge Kosmo was a very naughty, luscious sounding Anitra, but for pure animal magnetism the Woman in Green, the dancer Jane Mason, beat her hands down. Members of the BBC Singers filled in the other singing roles, providing three saucy Herd Girls and a couple of desert low-lifes. Two grand Norwegian actors of the old school, Wenche Fosse and Sverre Anker Ousdal, played the spoken roles respectively of Ase, Peer's mother, and the amorphous, expressionist Boyg, a totally suffocating cousin of the Bogey.

H.E. Elsom



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