Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Prom 14: The Seasons (RAH)

Is there a better composer than Haydn?

I have long harboured the suspicion that most, if not all, of music, or indeed of anything is either underrated or overrated, almost nothing being rated generally at its exact worth. Haydn is clearly underrated, as sadly was attested by a half empty Royal Albert Hall for this performance of his oratorio The Seasons. This is a work that lies very much in the shadow of The Creation, not least because Haydn himself was less than happy with the circumstances of its genesis, complaining that the libretto was inadequate, and ultimately that the effort of writing it had worn him out (he composed little after its completion in 1802). I have to confess I know it hardly at all compared to its more famous companion, so Roger Norrington's appearance at the Proms seemed a good opportunity to redress the balance.

Now, it's true to say that it's not as great as The Creation, but then again, to paraphrase Joseph Heller, what is? In fact I wonder if, in a way, it counts as a more remarkable achievement and testament to Haydn's genius that he produced something so good from such unpromising materials. If it's true that he resorts to word-painting more here than before, the fact is that what he paints is far more interesting than the words that he illustrates. The raucous natural horns and growling trombones of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston's period band depicting the hunt in "Autumn" were only one highlight among many in this performance that reminded one that for all the cosy image of "Papa Haydn", he was much closer to his sometime pupil Beethoven than is often acknowledged. And Haydn has a natural humane warmth that the younger composer often struggled to produce. The triteness of the words becomes irrelevant when you're faced with such spirituality, such craft, such inventiveness as the 70-year-old composer shows here. Genius is a word that gets (mis)used so often nowadays that it hardly means anything anymore; but Haydn is one of a very small number of artists who genuinely deserves the description. It pains me deeply that he's thought of as staid, or boring, or shallow, because he's none of these things, as a careful listen to almost anything he wrote will reveal. He may not have the glamour of dying young and having a play written implying he was murdered by another composer, but I can't think of anyone else who sustained such a level of originality, inventiveness and sheer quality over such a long and prolific career. And yes, dammit, profundity too.If you can't hear the deep, heartfelt emotion and spirituality in his music, then you're simply not listening.

Is there a better composer than Haydn? Well, no.


Cheerful One said...

Random ill-educated comments:

The horns were bloody marvellous (though I confess I am a sucker for anything in an orchestra which involves the quick changing of equipment. I probably ought to grow out of this but frankly have no plans to).

James Gilchrist stood head and shoulders above the other soloists for me, because he was both clear and expressive.

I was kindof fascinated by Roger Norrington's conducting style but will have to pay harder attention to other conductors before I open my mouth on the subject. He was clearly enjoying himself enormously, though.

Having decided a few years ago that choral works are really not my thing this piece might actually have changed my mind.

I wish, really heartily wish that I could use my camera in the hall, just because of the characters within. I may be forced to draw in future but decided last night that it might interfere too much with my listening.

petemaskreplica said...

heh, Sir Roger is an inspiring figure, but I'd find him very difficult to follow if I were playing in his band :) And I fully agree about James Gilchrist, he was outstanding.

While this blog in no way condones the flouting of anyone's house rules, you might find that as long as you're discreet, keep the flash off and don't try snapping during the performance you'd probably get away with using your camera...

And you're right, you can never get tired of watching horn players get their crooks out.