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 Recording of the Week  Paul McCreesh conducts Haydn's The Seasons

Whenever I have to put my foot down and ration the amount of air-time which a new recording receives in the Presto office, it’s almost always an excellent sign – the most common scenario is that one or more of my colleagues have fallen so hard for something that they’d happily play it on loop for weeks, oblivious to the dozens of other new titles clamouring for our collective attention.

Paul McCreesh
Paul McCreesh

And so it was with Paul McCreesh’s spectacularly upcycled version of Haydn’s The Seasons, out today on Signum: certain people got so addicted to the adrenaline-rush provided by ten horns (yes, really) blasting out the hunting-scene from ‘Autumn’ a la Mahler or Bruckner that on one occasion I could hear their tally-hoes from the café across the street!

You may remember that my colleague David interviewed Paul last week about the process of re-translating the libretto (rather than using the somewhat idiosyncratic existing English text by Gottfried van Swieten) and the joys of hearing this music for this first time with the large choral and orchestral forces which Haydn would have deployed when performing the work in Vienna. Well, McCreesh’s new translation is a triumph, and will surely have an illustrious career beyond this recording: the awkwardness and archness of the older version (which often sounded like it’d been through google-translate and back again several times!) have been stripped away, and in its place we have something that sounds authentically eighteenth-century without being stilted or mannered. It’s clearly eminently singable as well, coming across with such clarity that I didn’t have to refer to the booklet-text once, and the soloists (particularly Andrew Foster-Williams, who grabs attention from the off with his description of departing Winter’s ‘blust’ry ruffians’) relish every nuance.

All three soloists are peerless, offering vibrant, text-alert singing throughout but never over-egging the pudding; Foster-Williams is endearingly bluff and rustic without lapsing into central-casting yokel territory, and is particularly delightful in his autumnal depiction of a hunting-dog stalking his prey. Carolyn Sampson’s vernal soprano is the ideal vehicle for the ‘simple country-maid’ Hannah, singing with heart-stopping delicacy in her apotheoses to Spring and Summer, and bringing a sense of earthy wit worthy of Susanna in Mozart’s Figaro to the ‘Winter’s Tale’ of a village-girl who outwits a predatory squire by sending him to check that the coast’s clear for a roll in the hay before leaping on his horse and galloping away while his back’s turned.

Her autumnal duet with tenor Jeremy Ovenden (which, as McCreesh says, is first cousin to the Papageno/Papagena scene in Die Zauberflöte in its ebullient celebration of simple pastoral love and rejection of urban ‘mincing dandies’) is another highlight, striking just the right balance of tenderness and humour and avoiding any hint of twee sentimentality. Ovenden is especially compelling later on when invoking the ‘ruthless, glacial savageness’ of Winter (now I want to hear him sing Winterreise) – when this Wanderer finally spots the friendly lights of his homestead, he and McCreesh make the music flare into such immediate warmth that I literally breathed a sigh of relief and pulled the curtains! No-one, it seems, does hygge quite like Haydn and McCreesh.

One of the great joys of this recording is the huge dynamic and emotional range afforded by the expanded forces – the introspective recitatives (with continuo pared right down to the bare minimum in many instances) are, in their way, as spine-tingling as the 70-strong chorus belting out their lusty paeans to wine, women and weather. I will concede, though, that that all-guns-blazing hunt-scene has to be an early contender for Track of the Year.

Haydn: The Seasons

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass), Wrocław Baroque Orchestra, Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Consort, Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC