On Thursday, February 7, the Philharmonic Society performed Haydn’s so-called Oratorio, “The Seasons,” in the Guildhall. It was a solemn occasion, and with a preliminary two minutes’ silence followed by the singing of God Save the Queen, the genre of the music made us feel almost as if we had been transported in time to the accession of Victoria.
The performance was most pleasing, with the solos in the excellent mouths of April Cantelo, Eric Greene and Gordon Clinton, and the baton in the very capable hands of Raymond Leppard. Gordon Clinton navigated his way through some tricky pieces of coloratura with a genial robust clarity (I cannot think why Haydn has concentrated his snags in the bass part), but it is to the chorus that I unhesitatingly take off my hat, and especially to the Philharmonic ladies. Their compass, firmness and one-ness of voice is quite amazing, and I was sad that one or two of the choral numbers were omitted for time’s sake. A particular loss was the fine key-change at the beginning of the last chorus of Spring.
The orchestra had bitten off quite enough to be going on with, I would guess, but were chewing away valiantly. Haydn has written at times a cloud of fine little notes requiring that skilful, not to say skittish, performance that avoids any appearance of effort. Well, there were, of course, moments of apprehension, but in the main we must cry “well done.”
However, there is one complaint to be made—about balance. Here I may have been the victim of the Guildhall’s acoustics, but I fancy that the majority of the audience generally is. I had not a little difficulty in hearing any words, and it would not seem to be through the failure of soloists or chorus to articulate them. The room is a treacherous place, and the orchestra often manages to drown the voices unless kept in check. Usually this is an advantage, but in “The Seasons” Haydn has written many orchestral illustrations, more than in “The Creation,” and to be appreciated their vocal explanation must be heard. The swarming of bees, the spouting of mountain torrents, dogs snuffing the scent, and so on, are not in themselves ideas communicable by music alone. Words must assist, and this is true throughout.
I was particularly struck by Haydn’s economy and sureness of effect in the hush preceding the storm. The detached string chords were simply electric, and in comparison with Beethoven’s similar preparation for a storm in the fourth movement of his Pastoral Symphony, I find Haydn’s suspense somewhat superior to Beethoven’s messy shower of second violin raindrops. Again, one is as impressed by the Prelude to Winter for its almost Wagnerian chromaticism as one is by the Chaos prelude to “The Creation.”
All in all this is a very refreshing work, not out to shock or to edify—thank goodness—but to delight and amuse. I was sorry not to have heard more laughter in the audience at the many points of humour and wit, but some people are easily over-awed by the word Oratorio, and others do not think they have had their money’s worth unless treated to a strong dose of hysteria alternating with neurasthenic sentimentality. Nevertheless, I was certainly satisfied, and consider that the Philharmonic Society and their guests are to be loudly congratulated on giving us a charming and absorbing evening.