A Courtly Conductor Shows Off a Wilder Side

10.17.09
Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

At 66, the conductor John Eliot Gardiner may look like a courtly, silver-haired eminence, worthy of his title Commander of the Order of the British Empire. But this scholarly musician, a pioneer in the early-music movement, has a wild side.

That wildness came out at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night when he conducted a bold and spirited account of Haydn’s late oratorio “Die Jahreszeiten” (“The Seasons”), with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir, both of which he founded.

Take the extended chorus in the “Summer” section of the oratorio (performed in the original German), a scene of country folk and hunters. The brash music depicts blasts of hunting horns, shouting hunters, barking dogs, the thumping hooves and steaming breaths of galloping horses and the delirious hurrahs of onlookers when the exhausted deer falls. Here Haydn shows himself a proto-film composer. Take that, John Williams!

Under Mr. Gardiner the orchestra and the chorus held back nothing in their arresting performance of this astounding music. Two pairs of players of natural horns faced off, trading volleys of hunting calls, at once clarion and raw. The strings dug into Haydn’s spiraling riffs, the woodwinds exulted in the nasal twang of their instruments, and the choristers half sang and half shouted this breathless, giddy music.

Naturally, this great 1801 oratorio, divided into four movements for the four seasons, also depicts nature at its most bucolic and contemplative. Mr. Gardiner captured the moments of serene bliss beautifully. The chorus “Komm, holder Lenz” (“Come, gentle spring”) breezed by, the choristers singing the songful phrases with calming tenderness and rosy sound over the undulant, flowing orchestra.

There are also passages of inspired scene painting: the opening of “Summer,” for example, where the tenor soloist, here the splendid James Gilchrist as Lucas (one of three archetypal country characters in the work), describes meek-eyed morn peeking out of her dew-bespangled veil in recitative. The quiet daring and strangeness of the music came through here, as the low strings slowly crept up slithering chromatic lines, the horn evoked ominous birds of night slinking away, and the violins and winds added layer upon layer of sustained sonorities to convey the brightening sky.

The other vocal soloists were also excellent. As Hannah, the soprano Lucy Crowe sang with focused, often angelic sound and supple phrasing. And as Simon, the bass Matthew Rose was stentorian and imposing when appropriate, but also elegant and noble.

Haydn composed this oratorio in the aftermath of “Die Schöpfung” (“The Creation”), again to a text provided by his friend and supporter Baron Gottfried van Swieten (this one based on a poem by James Thomson). Even in Haydn’s day “The Seasons,” though a solid success, was not as popular as “The Creation,” and that remains true, or so it would seem. There were a noticeable number of empty seats at Carnegie for this first of Mr. Gardiner’s two programs presenting the oratorios.

In “The Creation,” a searching, monumental piece, Haydn may have aimed higher. Perhaps “The Seasons” dabbles too much in literal-minded scene painting, with evocations of twittering birds, leaping fish and droning bagpipes.

But when the final chorus hails the glorious morn when we will rise from death and enter the heavenly gates, the music becomes more cosmic, and Haydn taps the sublime. And lest anyone suspect that his technique was failing in old age, Haydn placed brilliantly intricate fugues for chorus and orchestra at crucial moments in the score, including the final prayer. Take that, Bach!