To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the London Symphony Chorus is presenting two great oratorios over two Sundays at the Barbican. This coming Sunday they will perform The Dream of Gerontius, standard fare for a large symphony orchestra chorus. However, last Sunday, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, they tackled perhaps the trickier work of the two – Haydn’s late oratorio The Seasons. Despite reservations about the libretto, which he characterised as ‘französischer Quark’ (Frenchified rubbish), Haydn produced another masterpiece in this genre, to sit along his more popular, slightly earlier work The Creation.  

Sir Simon Rattle © Simon Fowler
Sir Simon Rattle
© Simon Fowler
This is a work that in recent times we more often see tackled by small, professional chamber choirs such as the Gabrieli Consort or the Monteverdi Choir, with the utmost precision and clarity. As we entered the hall on Sunday night, the extremely large choral forces seemed to be bursting from the choir stalls and I was apprehensive as to how the more nimble and subtle passages might fare. The orchestral forces were also sizeable for a modern performance of Haydn. The piece is not as harmonically adventurous as The Creation, and the pastoral nature of the writing does also add an air of simplicity that can become repetitive if not handled well and injected with character.

The performance was, however, in many ways a revelation, opening with a startling beat of the timpani and launching into a furious overture, period speeds and light-footedness with a modern orchestra. The London Symphony Chorus was on magnificent form. Rattle made no concession to the number of singers and took the performance at a quick, but beautifully judged, pace. The singers performed not only with precision and clarity, but great character, no mean feat with so many people on stage. The chorus was almost a match for the daringly quiet pianissimos in the strings, but produced a rich, full-blooded sound very needed such as in “Komm, holder Lenz”. The fugues were dispatched tidily and with confidence, and seemed undaunted by Rattle’s unrelenting tempi in the glorious wine harvest at the end of Autumn.

The orchestral playing was also superb. The obvious details and colourings – chirping crickets and hunting horns – were played with spirit and wit, but what was more impressive was Rattle’s fine eye for orchestral detail, bringing out small phrases, in the inner string parts in particular, that leant a continual flow of energy to the piece. Rattle’s passion for and enjoyment of this music was evident throughout. He took particular relish in the humorous quote from Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. The obbligato passages for oboe and bassoon were also faultlessly played. Occasionally it was a surprise to see the harpsichordist’s hands moving, as the sound was somewhat lost, and the recitatives were therefore occasionally more archaic and out of place than usual, as they were becoming at the time Haydn wrote the piece.

The soloists were also on good form. Tenor Andrew Staples shone as a late replacement to John Mark Ainsley, and baritone Florian Boesch was agile and witty. Both filled the Barbican wonderfully, even over the large orchestral forces. Soprano Monika Eder’s tone was clear and mellow, but occasionally she failed to project and was slightly dwarfed by both orchestra and acoustics. There was, however, little to find fault with and the communication and responsiveness between Rattle, the orchestra and the choir promises great things ahead of his homecoming next year.