René Jacobs, Zürcher Sing-Akademie / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Haydn: Oratorio “The Seasons”, Hob.XX:3
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-06-29
2016-07-07 — Original posting
This concert was one of the last events in this year’s Zurich Festival, Zürcher Festspiele 2016 (the concert was repeated the following day). We are also approaching the end of the concert season 2015/16 in Zurich (last concert: 2016-07-08). At the same time, there aren’t many concerts still on the list for the Tonhalle in its current state. This fall, the entire building complex (Kongresshaus Zurich) is undergoing a thorough renovation. Concerts with the Tonhalle Orchestra will relocate to a temporary site for approximately 3 years. To conclude the Zurich Festival, the organizers invited René Jacobs to conduct one of the popular choral works, Haydn’s Oratorio “The Seasons”. At the same time, this was the last opportunity to hear the Zürcher Sing-Akademie with the preparation by its founder, Tim Brown (see below for more information).
Haydn’s Oratorio “The Seasons”
Based on the success that he had with “The Creation” (1798), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) wrote a second Oratorio “The Seasons”, Hob.XX:3 — also based on a libretto by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733 – 1803). That libretto consists of translated excerpts from the long English poem “The Seasons” by James Thomson (1700–1748), published in 1730. “The Seasons” (“Die Jahreszeiten” in the German version) premiered in 1801. Note that the work was designed as bilingual, whereby the English text is not Thomson’s original poem, but was translated from the German Text, back to English — apparently not with the ideal outcome.
Here’s the structure of the oratorio — the English “translations” aren’t exact, but from the English version of the libretto. The roles are Hanne: soprano; Lukas: tenor; Simon: bass/baritone.
I: Der Frühling (Spring)
- Introduction / Recitativo (Simon, Lukas, Hanne) “Seht wie der strenge Winter flieht“ (Seem how sad gloomy winter flies)
- Choir “Komm holder Lenz“ (Come gentle spring)
- Recitativo (Simon) “Vom Widder strahlet jetzt“ (Now in his course the sun)
- Aria (Simon) “Schon eilet froh der Ackermann zur Arbeit auf das Feld“ (With eagerness the husbandman his tilling work begins)
- Recitativo (Lukas) “Der Landmann hat sein Werk vollbracht“ (The countryman has done his due)
- Terzetto and choir “Sei nun gnädig, milder Himmel“ (Be now gracious, o kind heaven)
- Recitativo (Hanne) “Erhört ist unser Flehn“ (Our humble pray’rs are heard)
- Song of joy “O wie lieblich ist der Anblick“ (O what num’rous charms unfolding)
- Terzetto and choir “Ewiger, mächtiger, gütiger Gott” (Endless God, mighty God, merciful God)
II: Der Sommer (Summer)
- Introduction: Adagio —
Recitativo (Lukas, Simon) “In grauem Schleier rückt heran“ (Her face in dewy veil conceal’d)
- Arie (Simon) “Der munt’re Hirt versammelt nun“ (The ready swain is gath’ring now) —
- Recitativo (Hanne) “Die Morgenröte bricht hervor“ (With rosy steps young day pours in)
- Terzett and choir “Sie steigt herauf, die Sonne“ (The sun ascends, he mounts) / “Heil! O Sonne Heil!“ (Hail! O sun, be hail’d)
- Recitativo (Simon) “Nun regt und bewegt sich alles umher“ (Now comes in swarms the rustic youth) —
Recitativo (Lukas) “Die Mittagssonne brennet jetzt“ (‘Tis noon, and vertical the sun)
- Cavatina (Lukas) “Dem Druck erlieget die Natur“ (Distressful nature fainting sinks)
- Recitativo (Lukas) “Willkommen jetzt, o dunkler Hain“ (O welcome now, ye shady groves)
- Aria (Hanne) “Welche Labung für die Sinne“ (O what comfort to the senses)
- Recitativo (Simon, Lukas, Hanne) “O seht! Es steiget in der schwülen Luft“ (Behold! on yonder edge of mountains high)
- Choir “Ach, das Ungewitter naht“ (Oh! The tempest comes o’er head)
- Terzetto and choir “Die düstren Wolken trennen sich“ (The cloudy welkin now clears up)
III: Der Herbst (Autumn)
- Introduction: Allegretto —
Recitativo (Hanne) “Was durch seine Blüte“ (What by various blossoms)
- Recitativo (Lukas, Simon) “Den reichen Vorrat fährt er nun“ (Th’abundant harvest now he brings)
- Terzetto with choir “So lohnet die Natur den Fleiß“ (So nature ever kind repays)
- Recitativo (Hanne, Lukas, Simon) “Seht, wie zum Haselbusche dort“ (Behold, how to the hazelbank)
- Duetto (Lukas, Hanne) “Ihr Schönen aus der Stadt, kommt her“ (Ye ladies fine and fair o come)
- Recitativo (Simon) “Nun zeiget das entblösste Feld“ (Now on the stripped fields appear)
- Aria (Simon) “Seht auf die breiten Wiesen hin!“ (Behold the wide extended meads)
- Recitativo (Lukas) “Hier treibt ein dichter Kreis“ (Here closed rings compel)
- Choir of the country people and the huntsmen “Hört, hört das laute Getön“ (Hear! Hear the clank and noise)
- Recitativo (Hanne, Simon, Lukas) “Am Rebenstocke blinket jetzt“ (The vineyard now in clusters bright)
- Choir “Juchhe! Juchhe! Der Wein ist da“ (Heyday, heyday! The liquor flows)
IV: Der Winter (Winter)
- Introduction: Adagio ma non troppo —
- Recitativo (Simon, Hanne) “Nun senket sich das blasse Jahr“ (Now sinks the pale declining year)
- Cavatina (Hanne) “Licht und Leben sind geschwächet“ (Light and life in sadness languish)
- Recitativo (Lukas) “Gefesselt steht der breite See“ (By frost cemented stands the lake)
- Aria (Lukas) “Hier steht der Wand’rer nun“ (Here stands the wand’rer now)
- Recitativo (Lukas, Hanne, Simon) “So wie er naht“ (And as he draws nigh)
- Song with choir (Hanne, choir) “Knurre, schnurre, knurre“ (Set the wheel a going, make it snore a turning)
- Recitativo (Lukas) “Abgesponnen ist der Flachs“ (Th’ev’ning task performed is)
- Song with choir (Hanne, choir) “Ein Mädchen, das auf Ehre hielt“ (An honest countrygirl there was)
- Recitativo (Simon) “Vom dürren Osten dringt“ (Now from the lived East)
- Aria (Simon) “Erblicke hier, betörter Mensch“ (Behold, o weak and foolish man) —
- Recitativo (Simon) “Die bleibt allein“ (Alone she stays)
- Terzetto with double choir “Dann bricht der grosse Morgen an“ (Then comes the great and glorious morn)
Haydn’s Oratorio Today
Haydn’s oratorios are really popular, particularly with lay choirs. They are not very demanding on the choir, the music is easy to understand. However, in a professional environment, there may be some challenges. The problem is not primarily in the music, but in Baron van Swieten’s libretto, which today sounds rather harmless and naive, especially in combination with Haydn’s pleasant, often equally harmless music. Altogether, Haydn’s oratorios can easily sound trivial.
Among the conductors, René Jacobs (*1946) is one of the top figures and expert in historically informed performances (HIP), a real specialist for baroque and classical music. For once, here, he was not performing with a fully specialized ensemble for historic performances, but with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich — though with some “historic ingredients”, see below. I was really curious to see and hear how conductor, orchestra, choir and soloists would be performing in Haydn’s popular oratorio!
René Jacobs is certainly aware of “triviality dangers” that I mentioned. He is fighting these traps by choosing fluent tempi and vivid, small-scale dynamics. His performance also features some dramatization (playing theater on the podium), and, in one case, striking exaggeration. He is quite successful with this approach. Already in the orchestral introduction I enjoyed the lively, expansive dynamics, the eloquent articulation. It all made the music sound refreshing, enthralling, “new”. Fore more on Jacobs’ interpretation see below.
Jacobs arranged the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich around a fortepiano in the center (tail towards the audience / conductor, lid removed). That instrument was played by Peter Solomon, part of the basso continuo, together with the solo-cellist, Thomas Grossenbacher. The violins found themselves on either side of the podium, facing each other. That is historically correct, and it helps listeners experiencing dialogs between these two voices. But is also is definitely more demanding on the coordination between these two prominent voices. It is for good reasons that David Zinman used to place these two voices next to each other!
Unfortunately, René Jacobs’ baton technique is not ideal for keeping a mid-size orchestra (around 25 string players) under tight control, particularly with his preference for a fluent, if not fast pace. In my opinion, the orchestral precision wasn’t always quite at the high level we have been used to. Luckily, the concert master and the solo cellist, Thomas Grossenbacher (centrally placed, next to the fortepiano), both did an excellent job at coordinating the orchestra. Especially the latter appeared to draw real pleasure from his central position and function within the ensemble (his position was better than that of the concert master to communicate with all of the string players).
In oratorios, the central function is occupied by the choir, in this case the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, prepared by its founder, Tim Brown. This is not the first time I heard that choir sing (see here and here): every time they proved to be an excellent, professional choir. Also in this concert, the 36 singers were excellent, exemplary in voice quality / forming, articulation, dynamic control and homogeneity. This was obvious from the very first choir piece, “Komm, holder Lenz”, which opened, sharpened the senses for the qualities of this vocal ensemble. The choir remained superb and clear in coloraturas and polyphonic pieces. It never lost clarity and diction, even for the finale, where the choir is split into two groups of four voices each.
Throughout the evening, it was a true joy to watch and listen! It will be interesting to observe how the choir develops in the upcoming years! Starting with the season 2017/2018, the German conductor Florian Helgath will take over the direction of the choir (during the season 2016/2017, the young Swiss conductor Andreas Felber will lead the choir ad interim).
The Role of the Soloists
In oratorios, the choir may depict “action” (e.g., crowds, groups of people), but they may just as well just be illustrating / commenting any “action”. Now, with few exceptions, Haydn’s “The Seasons” does not feature much action. The composition is mostly an illustrative and reflective poem. But there are still three soloists, Hanne (soprano), Lukas (tenor), and Simon (bass). These are singing arias, cavatinas, and recitativi. Haydn does not limit recitativi to a single voice (such as the narrator in many baroque oratorios): he often has them depict little “scenes”, featuring up to three singers. There are also proper terzetti, with or without choir.
The Solo Singers
Marlis Petersen (*1968) is a coloratura soprano, she spends the most part of her career singing in operas. Her part, Hanne, in this oratorio does feature a few coloraturas, but her role is mostly lyrical. To me, her vibrato often was rather strong. There were instances where her voice lacked clarity and articulation. On the other hand, in “Herbst” (Autumn) she has a duet with the tenor (“Ihr Schönen aus der Stadt, kommt her” / “Ye ladies fine and fair o come”). Here, she visibly lived up, was having fun playing a little bit of theater on the concert podium.
Also her partner in that duet, the tenor Werner Güra (*1964), in the role of Lukas, enjoyed that bit of theater playing with Hanne, when the two roles were tempting each other. Werner Güra’s real strength, though, was in the soft passages / pieces, such as the cavatina “Dem Druck erlieget die Natur” (“Distressful nature fainting sinks”) in “Sommer”. To me, this was among the real highlights of the evening. Güra was able to keep the tension up to the very last note, even in the softest pianissimo — fascinating and touching! Never he really forced / needed to push his voice. Just in distinct, well-selected passages he was placing a shiny highlight with his bright, well-projecting timbre.
The bass-baritone (Simon) Johannes Weisser (*1980) convinced with his warm, full voice. I quite liked his expressive singing, particularly in the second half of the oratorio.
Actually, with all three soloists I was hoping for more clarity / better diction: I suspect that listeners who were not (at least marginally) familiar with the text & content had very little chance to understand and follow what the text was about.
Summary / Conclusion
Overall, I really liked the lyrical segments of this performance: these were convincing, well-formed, well-played. The orchestra once more was truly excellent. On the other hand, I found it a bit of a pity that in faster sections, René Jacobs rarely, if ever, allowed for a little ritenuto, a little slow-down in order to allow for a coloratura or the occasional arabesque to flourish, for the vocal soloists or the solos in the wind section to elaborate details more carefully. Often, he seemed to “just pull forward”, and more than once, such fast ornamentation felt a bit careless, if not even superficial. Jacobs’ preference for fluent / fast tempo was not helpful in this.
One distinct highlight was hunting scene in “Herbst”, not just because of the really surprising “shot” from the drums (with wooden drum sticks, of course), but primarily because of the two pairs of natural horns. These found themselves in the rear corners on either side of the podium. Their bright, lively sound was fascinating!
The final choir in “Herbst” turned into real fun: a hilarious bacchanal, a gathering of drunken people, accompanied by a four extra players in costumes, playing drum, clash cymbals, Turkish crescent, and tambourine. An excessive, boisterous drinking session, ending in wild yell — or was this a hiccup?
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.