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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Concert Review: Welcome to FarmVille

The Cleveland Orchestra turns Haydn's The Seasons.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Photo by Roger Mastroianni © 2017 The Cleveland Orchestra.
You don't hear the Haydn oratorios much.

The father of the symphony and the string quartet wrote two late ones for his London audiences following the success of his cycle of late symphonies. Of the two, it is the first The Creation that shows up on the occasional choral program. On Wednesday night, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra made their case for The Seasons (German title: Die Jahrezeiten) with a concert performance of the piece on the big stage at Carnegie Hall.

The work is one of Haydn's last. It is a large oratorio in four acts, following the turning of the year from Spring to Summer to Autumn to winter. There are arias, secco recitatives and large choruses, accompanied by some of Haydn's most bold and inventive writing for the orchestra. Each of The Seasons' four movements contain musical seeds that would blossom in later works by Beethoven, Schubert and even Arthur Sullivan. Although the libretto (based on an epic by an obscure Scottish poet) is workmanlike and at times even hokey, the inventive, kaleidoscopic orchestration never fails to catch the ear's interest.

Spring opened with a rude plenty of sound, the horns and strings of the Cleveland Orchestra giving an impression of bustling peasants and cheerful activity. Haydn provides inventive support for his the three soloists. They play the part of apple-cheeked villagers: Hannah, a farm girl (Golda Schultz), Lucas, the strapping young lad who is in love with her (Maximillian Schmitt), and Simon, her father, (Christian Van Horn.) The latter was a a late substitute for Thomas Hampson, who had cancelled weeks before. These aren't really characters--they are idealized peasants that serve as a lead-in for the choral writing.

These three singers were mostly unknown to the audience. Ms. Schultz is a South African import with a lyric voice capable of pointillist expression and the fine details called for by Haydn and the exacting Mr. Welser-Möst. Mr. Schmitt is a bright-toned tenor with Wagner in his future. He tried to inject virility into Lucas. Mr. Van Horn has appeared several times at the Metropolitan Opera. He had a big, ungainly instrument with a dark coloration that would make him an appealing villain but was an ill fit for the world-weary and wise Simon. The choral parts: the real musical meat of this work, was delivered by the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, singing in tip-top form.

Summer lightened the tone considerably, introducing a wispy love story between Lucas and Hannah, interrupted by a spectacular orchestral thunderstorm. Here, flutes hurled lightning bolts and the timpani rolled forth in a manner soon to be imitated by Beethoven and Rossini. However by this point the audience was looking distinctly unenthusiastic in reaction to all this pastoral beauty and the interval saw many listeners leave this bucolic fantasy for the harsh reality of New York's streets in the middle of winter.

Those that departed missed the Autumn movement, in which Haydn reaps his most marvelous and inventive musical ideals. Detailed descriptions of cleared wheat-fields (and the rodents living within them) were followed by accounts of honeybees and peasant-stomped grapes. All these farm details may have anticipated the depictions of rural industry in the Prokofiev and Shostakovich cantatas produced in the Soviet Union. Offstage hunting horns that depicted the flight of a stag and the baying of hounds to the "drunk" off-meter writing for the strings that made it sound like the violin players had knocked back a couple of tankards at intermission. (The players were sober; it was the mischievous Haydn who made them sound like they were drunk!)

The last movement Winter slows down to an almost frozen pace, with low strings and muttering winds depicting the creaking of trees and the cracking of ice on frozen lakes. The peasants are inside in this movement, continuing to be industrious as they huddle around a fire. However, relief from all this industry does come. It was introduced by a final aria for Mr. Van Horn, who appears to be suffering from a winter cold in this final season. His expressive aria paved the way for a the final double chorus, an optimistic vision of the afterlife that anticipates the ecstatic finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and a final end to the endless cycle of the seasons.

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