Are there musical works, even pieces generally considered to be masterpieces, that no longer can catch the listening public’s interest, no matter how expertly they are performed? I have been wrestling with this question since this weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus performance of Haydn’s The Seasons. This month the orchestra celebrates the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus with two major performances: the splendid Carmina Burana two weeks ago, and this week Haydn’s last major work, The Seasons, sung in German, with music director Franz Welser-Möst conducting and three excellent soloists: Malin Hartelius, soprano; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; and Luca Pisaroni, baritone. The chorus was prepared by its director, Roberto Porco.

© The Cleveland Orchestra
© The Cleveland Orchestra

It is clear that Welser-Möst has a fondness and affinity for the work. It was last performed here in 1998 under his direction. The next previous performance had been over 30 years before, led by the the legendary Robert Shaw, the chorus’ founding director. Haydn’s symphonic music has been touchstone repertoire for this orchestra since the George Szell era, and they gave a polished performance here. The three vocal soloists were all attuned to the style.

And yet, the two-and-three-quarters hours of the performance were a long haul, despite some lovely moments, colorful musical pictorialism and some rousing tunes. The Seasons just doesn’t have the interest of Haydn’s somewhat shorter oratorio The Creation, not to mention the oratorios of Handel, which influenced Haydn to compose what he wanted to be his lasting masterpiece. Length does not seem to be the issue: audiences readily sit through Handel oratorios and operas, some of which are longer than The Seasons. Wagner’s five-hour Siegfried was the hottest ticket in town when the Cleveland Orchestra performed it in the 1990s, as were the series of Mozart operas performed a few years ago by the orchestra and Welser-Möst. But The Seasons does not have the dramatic spark of Handel, Wagner or Mozart (or Carl Orff, for that matter). The Seasons is more a set of character pieces, without a unifying narrative or musical structure. The many beautifully turned phrases didn’t add up to a satisfactory whole, despite the best efforts of all concerned.

The Seasons has a long history of performance in English; that might have been a better choice for an English-speaking chorus and audience, even though the libretto, in whatever language, is stilted. The chorus’ German was understandable, and they managed the polyphony of the many fugal passages with considerable clarity. Only during the last chorus of Autumn did they get out of sync with the orchestra for a few moments.

Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was the standout of the three soloists. He did his best to bring life to Simon, the archetypal father figure who oversees the land through the four seasons, as well as the budding romance between his daughter Hanne, the soprano, and young farmer Lukas, the tenor. The warmth of Pisaroni’s voice was matched by the clarity of his sung diction. Tenor Maximilian Schmitt was more effortful in his singing. Soprano Malin Hartelius has an exquisite lyric voice, but it is quite small, and she often was overpowered by the tenor and baritone.

The crowd in Severance Hall was considerably slimmer from my vantage point than one would expect for a major choral concert, and a large number abandoned ship at the end of the first half of the program (at which point a brisk performance of the Verdi Requiem could have been completed), with Autumn and Winter still to come. Even more filtered out during the second half.

Is is possible to imagine a thrilling performance of The Seasons? Or is it a masterpiece that one might admire but not love? The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus have given an admirable performance in many ways, but in this case it seemed more a didactic exercise than a love letter.