Haydn’s The Seasons is redolent of the spirit of the Enlightenment, in its subject matter (nature as moral teacher), its naturalistic theology (being, in effect, a secular oratorio) and last, but not least, its cosmopolitan origins. Scotsman James Thomson composed the original cycle of poetry and published it in 1726-30. Its popularity caught the eye of dabbling Dutch aristocrat, Gottfried van Swieten, Imperial court librarian in Vienna who, fancying himself as librettist, put Haydn to work on the music.

Matthew Rose © Lena Kern
Matthew Rose
© Lena Kern

Haydn, already in his 60s, was distinctly ambivalent about the project especially the idea of representing the minutiae of nature in musical form. Truth be told, it seemed to him somewhat tacky, and van Swieten did horribly butcher the original. Nonetheless the results, ushering in the new century in 1801, are fine, and there is no evidence of ambivalence: the music is worthy of this grandiose theme.

In the hands of the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, directed by Joe Miller, and a trio of soloists, the work was at once commentary on the changes in the seasons, celebration of their glory and warnings of their darker sides. If I were asked to describe the concert experience with one word, I would say momentum. The momentum didn’t let up for an instant; indeed I thought autumn and winter exceeded spring and summer for dramatic intensity.

Character as well as mood was well-captured. Regula Mühlemann, as peasant girl Hanne, had a luminously clear soprano, beautifully articulated. Her tale of the smart peasant girl outwitting the aristocratic seducer type was told with great dramatic fervor. Matthew Rose, as Farmer Simon, led off with his well-known aria, his voice was rich especially in its lower register. There and later during his exhilarating hunting aria, Rose cultivated a visible rapport with the orchestra, in the latter, actually looking back at the bassoons, which represented the hunting dogs. No doubt that’s just the sort of thing Haydn most disliked about this libretto, but it was quite fun actually. Rose did not run out of vocal heft; his most important aria in the work presents the didactic message of the whole: the awareness of the cycle of life and death, through the recurrence of seasons, should be an exhortation to virtue. Rose’s voice was suitably fierce and admonitory for such serious purposes: a sermon in song that only a bass could deliver with such gravitas.

Werner Güra as Lukas, the country swain, had a clear, clean tenor. His aria imploring heaven for mercy could have been more moving, but the love duet between him and Hanne was a real highlight, showing such humour, grace and humane spirit, that one could not but be charmed.

The trio of voices blended elegantly when together; no one voice dominated unduly. The chorus was energetic, well-timed and in good voice: their sound filled the hall, notably for the big set-pieces. The Wine Chorus which followed the Hunt, marking the end of Autumn, was a joyous affair with full command of volume and pace. The orchestra under Nézet-Seguin’s baton, was responsive to all the dynamic shadings, from the colourless drab wintry feel to the bright and cheery springs and summers. An enjoyable musical reminder of the cycle of nature, as we come to the end of the year.