Simon Rattle conducts Haydn’s “The Seasons”

09 Sep 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Christiane Oelze, John Mark Ainsley, Thomas Quasthoff

  • Joseph Haydn
    The Seasons, Hob. XXI:3 (145 min.)

    Christiane Oelze Soprano, John Mark Ainsley Tenor, Thomas Quasthoff Bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Simon Halsey talking about Haydn’s “The Seasons” (13 min.)

According to Sir Simon Rattle himself, there are few other composers with whom he has a closer relationship than with Haydn – it was “love at first sight” when he encountered these works as a young musician. The public has this relationship to thank for many happy musical moments. Gramophone wrote about Rattle’s recording of Haydn symphonies: “Anyone sceptical of the pairing of the words ‘Berlin Philharmonic’ and ‘Haydn’ is in for a delightful surprise. While not trying to ape the lighter sound of period instruments, this heavyweight orchestra under Rattle’s inspired baton is suddenly spry, light on its feet, alert to the smallest changes of accent and nuance.”

With this approach, Rattle and his orchestra took on Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons in 2009: a work which entrances through its magnificence and its basically sunny disposition. Both conductor and the Philharmoniker have performed this oratorio together before, in March 2003 – a concert which Die Welt called “the highlight so far” of Rattle’s first season as chief conductor in Berlin. Two of the soloists from that performance can also be heard in this concert: soprano Christiane Oelze and baritone Thomas Quasthoff. They will be joined on this occasion by tenor John Mark Ainsley.

“The picture of thy life behold”

Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons

The audience at the annual Handel Commemoration concerts in Westminster Abbey in June 1791 included a particularly distinguished visitor in the person of Joseph Haydn. These monumental performances of Messiah and Israel in Egypt left such a profound impression on him that he studied every note in both these scores with a sense of growing wonderment. The impresario Johann Peter Salomon tried to channel his enthusiasm along creative lines by suggesting that he might write a Handelian oratorio and even offered him an English libretto. Haydn asked to think the matter over, believing that his English was not good enough for such a project, but when he returned to Austria in July 1792, he took the libretto with him. Back in Vienna, he discussed his misgivings with Baron Gottfried van Swieten, misgivings shared by his learned colleague: “But I recognized at once”, van Swieten recalled, “that such an exalted subject would give Haydn the opportunity I had long desired, to show the compass of his profound accomplishments and to express the full power of his inexhaustible genius; I therefore encouraged him to take the work in hand, and in order that our Fatherland might be the first to enjoy it, I resolved to clothe the English poem in German garb. In this way my translation came about. It is true that I followed the plan of the original faithfully as a whole, but I diverged from it in details as often as musical progress and expression, of which I already had an ideal conception in my mind, seemed to demand.” This “translation” was van Swieten’s German version of the words of The Creation, the musical setting of which Haydn had completed by early 1798.

Like The Creation, The Seasons is based on an English-language original, a cycle of pastoral poems of the same name by the Scots poet James Thomson (1700 – 1748). The Hamburg poet and senator Barthold Heinrich Brockes had already translated Thomson’s poem: it appeared in print in 1740 and nearly six decades later served as the basis of van Swieten’s libretto. Haydn’s setting received its first performance at Prince Joseph Schwarzenberg’s town house in Vienna on 24 April 1801. According to a report in the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, “Silent devotion, astonishment and loud enthusiasm relieved one another with the listeners; for the most powerful penetration of colossal ideas, the immeasurable quantity of happy ideas surprised and overpowered even the most daring of imaginations.”

A few examples may serve to convey some notion of the initial impression left by this “immeasurable quantity of happy ideas”. The pastoral mode is well represented – one is almost tempted to say that this was entirely “natural”. With its 6/8 time-signature, gently rocking rhythms, triadic melodies and drone, the G major chorus of the peasants, “Komm, holder Lenz!” (“Come, gentle spring!”), is as indebted to this sound world as Simon’s F major aria, “Der munt’re Hirt versammelt nun” (“The ready swain is gath’ring now”), in which there is a prominent part for a concertante horn and the vocal line is accompanied by violins in thirds and sixths. Simon (bass) is a farmer. His earlier aria, “Schon eilet froh der Ackersmann” (“With eagerness the husbandman”), contains an orchestral quotation from the Andante from Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 – known in Germany as the symphony “Mit dem Paukenschlag” and in the English-speaking world as “The Surprise”. Within years of its first performance in London in March 1792, this symphony was so popular that the composer was able to permit himself this musical allusion.

Other writers have also noted a thematic affinity – it would be an exaggeration to call it a quotation – between the Adagio from Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B flat major and the chorus, “Sei nun gnädig” (“Be now gracious”), from “Spring”. Common to both is a calm, hymnic solemnity and a deeply felt vocal line that breathes a spirit of tranquillity, serenity and peace. As an example of its diametrical opposite, suffice it to mention the oppressive strains of the cavatina, “Dem Druck erlieget die Natur” (“Distressful nature fainting sinks”), and the tempestuous storm music of the chorus, “Ach, das Ungewitter naht!” (“Oh! the tempest comes o’er head”). “Autumn” celebrates an elemental, earthy love of life. In the aria “Seht auf die breiten Wiesen hin!” (“Behold the wide extended meads”), the tempo quickens twice, suggesting a dog running ahead of the rest of the pack in the fever of the chase before it suddenly stops in its tracks, at which point a timpani stroke indicates the huntsman’s rifle shot. The huntsmen’s delight in the chase – it is a stag that is hunted down here – is celebrated with hunting calls, the barking of dogs and an earthy chorus. This sense of elemental elation is even greater in the following celebration of the wine harvest, which adopts the rhythms of a German dance and what Haydn called a “sozzled fugue”, culminating in a mood of carefree carousal and revelry.

Winter now brings its icy silence to the countryside. The young farmer, Lukas (tenor), complains about the dangers that beset the fearful traveller in the snowy waste, where he can easily lose his way. But whereas Thomson leaves the hapless farmer to freeze to death in the cold, van Swieten offers him refuge in a warm and cosy cottage, where he meets a sociable, hardworking group of people. Later the mood changes once again: “Vom dürren Osten dringt / ein scharfer Eishauch jetzt hervor” (“Now from the livid East an icy gale is darted out”), sings Simon, enjoining his listeners: “Erblicke hier, betörter Mensch, erblicke deines Lebens Bild!” (“Behold, O weak and foolish man, the picture of thy life behold!”). At the words “Schon welkt dein Herbst dem Alter zu” (“To age your autumn withers on”), Haydn quotes a passage from the Andante of Mozart’s G minor Symphony K 550 – he had been friendly with Mozart in the years leading up to the latter’s premature death. By contrast, the high wind chords after the line “Verschwunden sind sie wie im Traum” (“All fled and vanish’d like a dream!”) sound like a pre-echo of Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both here and elsewhere the listener will be conscious of the fact that The Seasons is a gift from the 18th to the 19th century.

“Uns leite deine Hand, o Gott! / Verleih’ uns Stärk’ und Mut! / Dann siegen wir, dann geh’n wir ein / in deines Reiches Herrlichkeit” (“Direct us in thy ways, O God! / Support us in the strife! / In triumph then we shall ascend / The holy mount of heav’nly bliss”). With this high-minded prayer, The Seasons ends on a note of great solemnity. Haydn’s admission that he had never felt as God-fearing or as close to God as he did at the time of The Creation is undoubtedly true of The Seasons too. According to the Italian writer Claudio Magris, Haydn’s music is “perhaps one of the final – or simply one of the very rare? – manifestations of an unclouded harmonic tonality, a creation without shadows”. Haydn felt a sense of certainty “that is also that of a completely free and relaxed person: a person who” – as Sigmund Freud writes – “knows unconsciously that nothing can threaten him”.

Wolfgang Stähr

Translation: Stewart Spencer

John Mark Ainsley studied in Oxford, later continuing his training with Diane Forlano in London, at the same time building up a formidable reputation as a concert singer while working with conductors of the eminence of Sir Colin Davis, Marc Minkowski, Bernard Haitink, Seiji Ozawa and Emmanuelle Haïm. Central to his operatic repertory are the roles by Mozart and Handel that he has sung at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, San Francisco, the Bavarian State Opera and elsewhere. At the Frankfurt Opera, he has been heard as the Madwoman in Britten’s Curlew River and as Captain Vere in Billy Budd, while his performances of the role of Skuratov in Janáček’s From the House of the Dead have been admired in Vienna, Amsterdam and Aix. In recent years John Mark Ainsley has taken a greater interest in the 20th-century repertory and also in contemporary works: in September 2007, for example, he took the part of Hippolytus in the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s opera Phaedra at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. That same year the Royal Philharmonic Society voted him Singer of the Year. John Mark Ainsley is also a committed recitalist with a repertory extending from Purcell to Britten. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1991 and since then has returned on many occasions, most recently for Haydn’s Die Schöpfung under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in early February 2007.

The German soprano Christiane Oelze studied singing with Klesie Kelly-Moog in her native Cologne and also with Erna Westenberger in Frankfurt am Main. Acclaimed throughout the whole world of music, she has worked with leading conductors, directors and fellow singers in opera houses and concert halls from Covent Garden and Glyndebourne to Paris, Salzburg, Zurich, Berlin and Hamburg in a repertory that in general has focussed on Mozart’s Pamina, Konstanze, Susanna, Countess Almaviva and Ilia but which has also included Debussy’s Mélisande and Stravinsky’s Anne Trulove. In 2002 she made her brilliant debut as Sophie in Peter Konwitschny’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier in Hamburg under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher. Christiane Oelze is particularly committed to the lieder repertory, and here, too, she is widely regarded as one of the leading sopranos of our time. Among her accompanists are Mitsuko Uchida, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Eric Schneider. She first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1994 and has returned to the city on frequent subsequent occasions. In recent days she has also appeared with the orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle in performances of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten in Salzburg and Lucerne. Between 2003 and 2008 she taught singing at the Robert Schumann Academy of Music in Düsseldorf.

The German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff is one of the leading song recitalists and concert performers of our time. He was still very young when he began his musical training, while additionally studying law. He first appeared in America and Japan in 1995 and has subsequently returned to both continents on a regular basis. By 1996 he had been appointed to a voice professorship at the Detmold Academy of Music. Since 2004/05 he has held a similar position at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin. He appears regularly with leading orchestras and conductors all over the world. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1997 and has been a frequent visitor since then. He made his operatic debut as Don Fernando in a production of Fidelio with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle at the Salzburg Easter Festival in April 2003 and has just taken part in performances of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten also under Sir Simon Rattle’s direction in Salzburg and Lucerne. Among Thomas Quasthoff’s many awards are a First Prize at the ARD Competition in Munich. In October 2005 he received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany from the country’s president, Horst Köhler. The following year he was awarded the European Prize for Culture in Dresden’s Frauenkirche.

Its flexibility, immaculate intonation, flawless articulation and warm, richly hued sound make the Rundfunkchor Berlin one of the most sought-after ensembles among international orchestras and conductors. Initially founded in Berlin in 1925 for broadcast recordings, the choir has taken part in premiere performances under conductors such as Szell, Scherchen, Klemperer and Kleiber. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) shaped the choir into an instrument of precision for the most demanding pieces, and Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) enriched the choir’s palette of colours as well as internationalizing its repertoire. The Rundfunkchor Berlin has been under the direction of Simon Halsey since 2001. Precision and a subtle combination of tone colours are the hallmarks of his direction. The series „Broadening the Scope of Choral Music“, which reaches across disciplines to integrate the arts as a whole, began with Rodion Shchedrin’s Der versiegelte Engel (2005). In cooperation with various artists, Halsey breaks out of the classical concert choir mold and opens up to a new public an original way of experiencing choral music. Within the field of education, Halsey encourages the exchange of ideas between professional and amateur singers. He has invested in singalong concerts since 2003, followed by formats tailored especially to public leaders and to youth. The Rundfunkchor Berlin works in close partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Together, the two ensembles won a Grammy Award in the category of „Best Choral Performance“ for Brahms’ German Requiem (2008) and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (2009). The choir also works regularly with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.


Deutsche GrammophonThomas Quasthoff appears in the Digital Concert Hall courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.

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