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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rare Offering of All Of Haydn's 'Seasons'

Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra"The Seasons" depicts rural life through glorious music and absurd lyrics.
Following its highly successful performance two years ago of Joseph Haydn's oratorio "The Creation," the Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra, led by its artist director Alexander Rudin and joined by soloists and chorus from abroad, brings to Tchaikovsky Hall on Tuesday Haydn's only other work in the same form, his much lesser-known "The Seasons."

The performance also serves to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the composer's death, which occurred on May 31, 1809.

Though "The Seasons" contains some of the most daring and original music Haydn ever wrote and enjoyed huge success at its Vienna premiere in 1802, it is now rarely performed anywhere in the world. As for Russia, its performance on Tuesday, Rudin said, will probably mark the first time an audience in this country has heard it in complete form.

Perhaps the relative neglect of "The Seasons" can be attributed to its complexity and length, which in fact is not excessive by oratorio standards. Most authorities agree, however, that the principal reason lies in the undistinguished poetry to which its music is set. "If only the text were not so frightfully absurd," remarked Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on hearing it performed. Certainly the fault is not that of Haydn's score, which practically splits at its seams with glorious melody.

"The Seasons" was Haydn's last important work. He struggled with it for nearly three years and as a result lost much of what remained of his already precarious health. "It broke my back," the composer said. A large part of the struggle came from clashes with the librettist, one Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an Austrian diplomat and amateur composer. The basis of van Swieten's text was a poem by Englishman James Thomson, published in 1726, from which he translated large parts into rather awkward German, freely adapting the original and adding sections of his own. Van Swieten also gave Haydn explicit directions concerning the music he was expected to have composed.

Haydn objected strongly both to much of the text and to van Swieten's constant interference in the process of composition. Particularly upsetting to the composer was the librettist's insistence that he portray in music such things as "the purling of brooks, the buzzing of flying insects and the wailing of owls." A further order, to imitate the croaking of frogs, Haydn dismissed as "vulgar Frenchified trash." Nevertheless, he complied, although with a passage that is mercifully brief.

The oratorio has no story, but simply presents a depiction of rural life through the four seasons of the year, touching on the labors, lovemaking, hardships and celebrations of an unspecified community of peasants. Most impressive of all are its rousing choral passages, which include a celebration of wine and a hunting chorus. A rather solemn "Ode to Toil" caused Haydn to remark that, though he had been industrious all his life, he had never before been called upon to write music in praise of industry.

Haydn's score for "The Seasons" was considered radically modern in its time. Many of its passages, especially those describing such phenomena of nature as a sunrise and a thunderstorm, might not have sounded out of place a few decades later in the works of Richard Wagner and Hector Berlioz. Overall, the oratorio amounts to a remarkable creative achievement by a man in very poor health and nearing what by standards of the time was the very advanced age of 70.

This season, Musica Viva celebrates its 30th anniversary. Rudin has led the orchestra since 1988 and in the process has brought it to a standard of playing perhaps rivaled only among local chamber orchestras by violinist-conductor Vladimir Spivakov's Moscow Virtuosi, which rarely plays these days in its home city. Musica Viva's specialty is music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, from which it has unearthed many valuable but almost totally forgotten scores. And in playing music of those times, it has developed a style that very closely resembles that of orchestras specializing in the performance of so-called "early music."

The chorus on Tuesday will be the Collegium Vocale, Gent, from Belgium, one of Western Europe's finest choral ensembles and familiar to Moscow audiences for its performances here in recent seasons of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, under the direction of its founder and artistic director, Philippe Herreweghe. All three soloists, soprano Lydia Teuscher, from Germany, tenor Stephan MacLeod, from Switzerland, and baritone Kresimar Spicer, from Croatia, were heard in Musica Viva's performance here last season of Haydn's "Theresienmesse," one of the six great masses that Haydn wrote contemporaneously with "The Creation" and "The Seasons."

"The Seasons" is not likely to be heard soon again in Moscow. And even if it is, the odds are that it will not be performed by as distinguished a group of vocalists and instrumentalists as that to be assembled Tuesday on the stage of Tchaikovsky Hall.

Joseph Haydn's oratorio "The Seasons" will play May 19 at 7 p.m. at the Tchaikovsky Hall. 4/31 Triumfalnaya Ploshchad. Metro Mayakovskaya. Tel. 299-3957, 232-5353.