Roger Norrington, who since 1998 has been chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, has been moving away from the period instrument bands with which he became synonymous in the eighties and nineties. However, from this performance of The Seasons, or rather Die Jahreszeiten (the performance here was in German), it is clear he still derives a huge amount of pleasure from the sound of the lithe strings, mellow flutes, rasping bassoons (and here, also contra-bassoon) and raucous, edge-of-your-seat brass that are part and parcel of period instrument performance.
In fact, it was Norrington's obvious enjoyment of the piece that brought this performance with the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston so vividly and excitingly to life (and I forgave him the initially disconcerting tendency he had to turn to the audience after each number). The sheer exuberance he inspired dispelled any idea that this was an inferior work (musically at least) to the better known Creation. Granted, Van Swieten's libretto can teeter on the edge of banality, but Haydn threw himself fully into the composition of what, in terms of orchestration and wealth of invention, has to be one of his most imaginative scores.
The oratorio's three soloists, Hannah (Sally Matthews), Lukas (James Gilchrist) and Simon (Jonathan Lemalu) have a dual purpose, as commentators on proceedings and protagonists in several quasi-operatic numbers. Mathews, radiant from her very first entry filled the hall with her wonderful, bright, lyrical soprano, and her love duet with Gilchrist - where they all but transform into Pamina and Tamino from The Magic Flute - was a highlight of the evening. (Time and again I was reminded of Mozart's opera by both the music and the archetypal enlightenment expressions of the text, where even those numbers ostensibly in praise of God struck me as a more pantheistic appreciation of the divine order of nature.)
Gilchrist, almost the exact tenor equivalent of Matthews, sweet toned and highly musical, sang pleasingly throughout and acted well in his Summer and Winter Arias - the first an evocation of sun-drenched torpor, the second a fascinating precursor of Romanticism as the Wanderer struggles through the winter landscape, this time, however, finding refuge.
Lemalu has a gratifyingly old-school feel to his warm but pleasantly grainy voice and even if he develops a bit of a snarl under pressure, he sang authoritatively and made the most of the less congenial role of Simon. Van Swieten gave too much of that character's words over to rather tedious discussion of the practicalities of farming and there is no doubt that overall Haydn, unsurprisingly, was less inspired by the agricultural specifics of the text than the more general paeans to the ordered glory of nature. Simon's first Aria, 'Schon eilet froh der Ackersmann', however, was a delight, although was there really the need for Norrington to telegraph the quotation from Haydn's own 'Surprise' Symphony the way he did?
The soloists in this performance were very fine but it was the orchestra and chorus that stole the show. Throughout there was so much to be enjoyed from the players: the three-way discussion between flute, oboe and flute accompanying the Fleiss trio and chorus; the truly percussive timpani thunder claps and virtuosity of the strings in the furious passagework in the storm; and Haydn's many instrumental imitations of nature - which can sound twee - played with uninhibited relish.
But the highlights for me were the hunt sequence and drinking song. Some may quibble at the inaccuracies of some of the brass playing in the hunt (the oboist had also had dreadful problems earlier, sorted out in the second half, so presumably a duff reed) but for me the warts-and-all exuberance were irresistible. These horns really did sound like they'd just come back from the hunt (perhaps lubricated with a few drinks along the way) and they and the trombones with their raucous glissandi brought the Albert Hall to life.
I couldn't help be swept along, grinning and toe-tapping by this and the ordered cacophony of the subsequent drinking song, the Boston chorus relishing their whooping exclamations of joy to the accompaniment of delirious percussion. Norrington, conducting without a baton, had obviously told his players and singers to let rip and enjoy themselves. This is exactly what they did and the enjoyment was infectious.
By Hugo Shirley