While Joseph Haydn had a long and successful musical career, his personal life was not so great. He rarely saw his parents after moving in with his friend Johann Spangler as a teenager and he had a long but unhappy childless marriage to Maria Anna, who had no love of music and was said to use her husband’s manuscripts for kitchen and bathroom accessories. He spent the major part of his musical life under the patronage of the very rich Esterházy family though he was given free rein to compose as he wished. Haydn was first inspired to write an oratorio following his stay in England where he heard those written by Handel. He first wrote The Creation in 1798 and this was a great success. The Seasons followed naturally and had the same librettist, Gottfried Van Swieten. The problem was that in The Creation he had to translate an existing libretto into German, whereas in The Seasons he had to work from an English poem by James Thompson and translate for German and English versions. The result was less than satisfactory, with stilted English bearing no resemblance to the character and tone of the poem.
There was no such problem at Chatswood on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, as Paul Macreesh had completely reworked the libretto making it natural, appropriate and listenable while staying faithful to the nuances of the original poem. The Willoughby Symphony Orchestra is council funded and is the largest of its type in Australia. Founded in 1963, it joined with the Northside Choir in 1973. The ensemble performs regular concerts in Sydney and also tours regionally.
Peter Ellis joined as Music Director of the Symphony Choir in 2015. Born in Yorkshire, he relocated to Australia in 2002. He is also director of Barker College Choral Programs and has made guest appearances with many major orchestras. He is also an accomplished player of piano, organ, and harpsichord. Amy Moore is also English and has sung Soprano with Irish and German Orchestras before moving to NSW in 2015 where she has sung with the Brandenburg Orchestra as well as many other local Choirs. Nicholas Jones, tenor, studied in Victoria and is a multiple prize winner. He has appeared as Remendado in Carmen and is due to appear in Die Meistersinger with Opera Australia. Daniel Macey is Sydney based and studied at the Conservatorium. Originally a violist, he switched to full-time Baritone singing in 2013 and has sung with numerous local companies as well as in Italy and Hawaii. He is currently working with Opera Australia in their Chorus and touring company.
The Oratorio began appropriately enough with Spring. After a long introduction, it was clear from the start that the words were clearly enunciated and their meaning conveyed fully to the audience. The mode shifted from minor to major to represent the promise of summer and the remaining fogs and frosts of winter and the music proceeded energetically. In song 4, Haydn includes the famous theme from the slow movement of his “Surprise” Symphony. The Finale was particularly climactic ending in a minor key.
Summer starts rather dispiritedly with daily labor and toil but soon the horns, rather hesitantly at first introduce the herdsman with fanfares. “Behold the Sun” was a beautiful Tutti played at largo tempo with the solo voices intertwining with the choir. There followed a particularly engaging Cavatina representing the exhaustion of nature as summer transforms to autumn. The approaching storm was a chorus with solos and I felt that the composer used the drums onomatopoeically rather than musically as in Beethoven’s famous rendering. Towards the end, I became aware of similarities, if not references, to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro “and then “Magic Flute” and this was cemented by the ending which surely arose from Sarastro’s famous solo in the latter. Haydn often repeated his own themes but rarely referred to the works of other composers, though there are comments about “The Creation” being influenced by “Magic Flute” and Haydn doubtlessly heard both operas.
After the interval, Autumn was ushered in by a sublime Recitative representing the harvest with a pastoral atmosphere. There followed a beautiful duet between the Soprano and Tenor. Song 6 featured the Baritone and ended with a marked Rallentando representing the fall of a shot bird. Another hunting song showed off the horns to good effect. A rollicking drinking chorus at the end was in particular greeted enthusiastically, as was the tambourine playing of the tenor.
The line “Freezing fogs and mists abound” recurs in Winter but now, of course, as the music reflects, it is all downhill. A sad Cavatina by Hannah is followed by a mournful recitative while the mood lightens with the sounds of a merry gathering. The song by the tenor that followed was very absorbing with abrupt changes of rhythm handled effectively. A later song featured the Soprano and Chorus and included a rather risqué interlude entreating a lover to “creep through that hedge” and this lightened the mood of the hall. Sadness took over in the form of a song by the Baritone while the brass heralded an enthusiastic finale with prayers to God for strength into the next season.
This was quite an undertaking for the Orchestra and Chorus and they carried it with aplomb. Peter Ellis ensured that tempi were maintained and obtained a high standard of accuracy from the players and choir. The soloists excelled throughout and the combination of their clarity of voice and the fine translation by Paul McCreesh ensured that the audience could follow the action without rustling their programme notes. Overall, a feeling of exhilaration from the audience and performers alike.