, July 2009
I will deliberately leave my reactions to Die Schöpfung until last. For this reviewer the interest in this set lies with the two lesser-known pieces. Purchase of this box may result in the happy event of a “supplementary” Schöpfung in the reader’s collection, and, given the high standard of Spering’s reading, that would be no bad thing.
Die Jahreszeiten (“The Seasons”) has always sat in the shade of Die Schöpfung, something that has unfairly militated against it…The Introduction to Die Jahreszeiten—a portrait of the journey from Winter to Spring—sets the scene perfectly here. The use of light articulation and clearly informed performance practice add life to the luminous counterpoint. Modern instruments are used, but with stylistic expertise. The scoring, notably, includes three trombones—who return in the prayer, “Sei non gnädig”. The Introduction moves straight into Simon’s recitative on the departure of Winter. Lukas describes the melting snows, leading to a welcome to Spring from Hanne. All three soloists are expertly matched. Sibylla Rubens (Hanne) has a wonderfully pure soprano, her pitching is spot-on and her phrasing is clearly heartfelt. It is Hanne who leads the finale—from the Freudenlied, “O wie lieblich ist der Anblick!”—and she does so beautifully.
Simon’s aria, “Schon eilet froh der Ackersmann” (With eagerness the husbandsman) is notable for the inclusion of the famous theme from Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony. Geneva-born bass-baritone Stephan MacLeod is attractively voiced but his voice lacks some power.
Tenor Andreas Karasiak (Lukas) is light of voice and has no problems at all with the higher-lying passages. All three soloists work perfectly together—as Spring’s finale conclusively proves.
The Leipzig Chamber Choir are a light-toned ensemble. In “Komm, holder Lenz!”, where boys and girls each get their chance to comment. They still pack a punch in the Spring finale’s celebration of Nature as well as sharply delineating the lines of the fugue at “Ehre, Lob und Preis” (Glory, praise the Lord).
Summer, in terms of music, is the longest season. A hunting horn plays a prominent part in Simon’s aria, “Der muntre Hirt versammelt nun” (The ready swain is gath’ring now). MacLeod phrases most suavely. Just a pity the aria is only three minutes long: Haydn’s intent is clearly to leave one wanting more. Instead of extending the aria, Haydn graphically paints the rising sun with ascending figures for soloists before the chorus affirms the sun has risen. Karasiak’s plaintive voice suits his cavatina “Dem Druck’ erlieget die Natur” (Distressful Nature fainting sinks), but Rubens overshadows him in her gripping way with recitative (“Wilkommen jetzt, o dunkler Hain”: Welcome now, ye shady groves) and in her ensuing, charming aria, “Welche Labung für die Sinne” (O what comfort to the senses). This, it turns out, is a remarkably emotionally-charged summer season, including a thunderstorm: the chorus, “Ah! Das Ungewitter naht”: O! The tempest comes o’er head.
The booklet notes refer to the influence of Mozart’s Zauberflöte on the writing, and there is certainly an element of truth in this. It seems particularly obvious in “Autumn”. There is much delightful writing to the Terzetto and Chorus, “So lehnet der Natur den Fleiss” (So Nature ever kind repays), a movement which finds the three soloists in beautiful balance.
The longest section of “Autumn” is Lukas and Hanne’s duet, “Iht Schönen aus der Stadt, kommt her” (Ye ladies fine and fair, O come). Karasiak’s light tenor renders Haydn’s upbeat writing well. Rubens’ Hanne responds with an identifiably Spring-like freshness. Again, though, I find myself a little worried by MacLeod’s voice, slightly lacking in projection, in his “Seht auf die breiten Wiesen hin” (Behold the wide extended meads). A shame, as the orchestral accompaniment is spot-on in terms of string articulation and general sprightliness. The hunting horns of the chorus “Hört das laute Getön” (Hear the clank and the noise) have a ball, exhibiting a rusticity that verges on rowdiness. The finale augments this with what Haydn himself described as a “drunken fugue”. The music swings—or should that be sways?—most affectingly.
The libretto is available on the Naxos website, but only in German. The rather old-fashioned English translations used in this review are taken from the Naxos booklet.
The oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia spreads over three discs. I first heard this piece when it was issued singly in 2007 and was massively impressed (see reviews), both by Haydn’s invention and by the present performance. The libretto is by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, brother of the composer Luigi Boccherini. The Capella Augustina gives a punchy, stylistically-aware account of the opening Sinfonia; more, the recording quality is exemplary, fully supporting the sforzandi.
The opening trio and chorus, “Pietà d’un’ infelice” (Have pity on an unhappy, tormented mother”) is most affectingly realised. Vocal performance sets the standard for what follows. Ann Hallenberg is a strong, creamy-voiced Anna, and she is matched by the strong Borchev as Tobit. The initial conversation between the two feels perhaps too long, but it is compensated for by Anna’s superb aria, “Sudò il guerriero” (The warrior sweats), especially with the declamatory, ample-voiced Hallenberg fronting things. This is a real highlight of this wonderful work, and if the reader wishes to sample Tobia prior to purchase—via one of the Naxos sites, perhaps—this would be a good place to start. Hallenberg shines again later in the first part in her aria, “Ah gran Dio” (Great God), a tender and heartfelt statement of appreciation for God’s benevolence in sending Tobias to cure his father’s blindness. The radiant chorus that follows takes the same words and acts as what might be described as a radiant suffix. The chorus is in fact excellent throughout, and fully rises to the blazing white light of Part I’s final number, “Odi le nostre voci” (Hear our prayer) and to the rigours of the concluding fugue. Hallenberg’s Part II aria, “Come un signo” (As in a dream) reveals Haydn’s dramatic gifts as he paints in music the character of Anna’s nightmares, and again, a chorus reinforces the drama effectively (“Svanisce in un momento”, In a moment disappear).
Anders Dahlin is a light tenor who tries to be a touch too subtle for his aria “Quando mi dona un cenno” (When your sweet lips). The effect is to direct our ears towards the ever-stylish playing of the Capella Augustina; even his closing cadenza is restrained, fully in tune with his purpose of projecting beauty. The Second Part aria, “Quel felice nocchier” (The happy boatswain) reinforces these impressions.
Sara’s long-awaited introduction to the audience occurs at her aria, “Del caro sposo” (I am in my dear husband’s house). Sophie Karthäuser is a splendid young singer whose career is very much on the up, and this confirms her status. She has the wide range necessary for this aria, negotiates the wide leaps well and delivers her scales impeccably. The Part II aria “Non parmi esser fra gl’uomini” (I would not be amongst mankind) reveals her ease in the delivery of long, lyrical lines.
Borchev is, as initial impressions suggested, a strong but intensely musical titular Tobit. Try his magnificent “Ah tu m’ascolta, O Dio” (Hear me, O God), an aria that seems to include within its 4:45 span a whole variety of vocal techniques, all of which Borchev negotiates spectacularly well.
The part of Raphael (Raffaele) is taken by the well-known Milanese soprano Roberta Invernizzi. Her first aria, “Quel figlio a te sì caro” (That, son, so dear to me) is prefaced by the most magical melisma on “Anna, m’ascolta”. This is mirrored perhaps in the cadenza she enjoys at the end of the succeeding aria, complete with introductory orchestral 6/4 chord. Invernizzi’s stylistic awareness is magnificent; her ability to negotiate wide leaps accurately, with no notes “caught” in between and no feeling of swoop is most refreshing. Part II of the oratorio begins with a gentle conversation between Anna, Sarah and Raphael (“O della santa fé stupendi effetti”; Oh the marvellous workings of blessed faith) before Invernizzi is given the aria, “Come se a voi parlasse” (As if to you a messenger from Heaven would speak), where she absolutely shines, her voice ever-responsive to the text, her technique ever reliable.
Haydn’s music is of infinite variety. The duet, “Dunque, O Dio” towards the end of the piece for Tobia and Anna is a magnificent feat of restrained emotion and beauty. The chorus is used sparingly but effectively.
The libretto, this time, is included in the booklet but in Italian only.
Die Schöpfung is obviously the best-known of the pieces here. Spering’s “Representation of Chaos” is not the most shocking I have heard, so the contrast with the ensuing recitative “Im Anfange schuf Gott Hummel und Erde” is not quite as marked as Haydn surely intended. This is perhaps surprising, given the intrinsic rawness of original instruments. The arrival on the word “Licht” is glowing, however.
Jan Kobow is an excellent, dramatic Uriel; Hanno Müller-Brachmann takes the role of the Archangel Raphael, while Sunhae Im is a radiant, light-voiced and incredibly agile Gabriel.
Müller-Brachmann makes a firm impression in his aria, “Rollend in schaümenden Wellen” (Rolling in foaming billows), and firmly enjoys his descriptions of the animals in his Part II recitative, “Und Gott sprach: es bringe die Erde hervor lebends Geschöpfe” (And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creatures).
Im impresses in her Part II aria, “Auf starkem Fittiche schwinget sich der Adler stolz” (On mighty pens uplifted soars the eagle aloft); Kobow’s light, musical tenor suits Uriel’s “Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan” (In native worth and honour clad) to a tee.
The choral contribution in this work is marked, and the VokalEnsemble Köln is uniformly excellent. The punchy “Stimmt an die Seiten” (Awake the harp) is wonderfully agile and stimulating, the famous “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (The Heavens are telling of the Glory of God).
Spering’s dramatic pacing is excellent, resulting in a truly held-breath “Vollendet ist das grosse Werk” (Achieved is the glorious work) with its perfectly balanced contained Trio, “Zu dir, Herr, blickt alles auf” (On Thee each living soul awaits). The beauty of Part III—in particular, the Adam/Eve duet, “Von deiner Güt’” and the bucolic contentment of “Holde Gattin!”—is laid bare for all to hear. This is emphasised by Spering’s careful preparation in Parts I and II, while the final grandeur of the last chorus, “Singet dem Herren alle Stimmen” (Sing the Lord, ye voices all!), complete with magisterial double fugue, acts as a fitting ending.
Again, no libretto, only a track-by-track synopsis.
A convenient and cost-effective way to familiarise yourself with two of Haydn’s lesser-known choral works, then.