SCUNA, photo Peter Hislop.
FRANZ Joseph Haydn’s “Die Jahreszeiten” (The Seasons), his last major oratorio from 1801, is an ode to the Austrian countryside, culminating in episodes of heavenly salvation.
Last night (May 26) the ANU Choral Society (SCUNA), under the baton of dynamic conductor Leonard Weiss, joined forces with soloists Rachel Duncan, Charles Hudson and Simon Lobelson, and organist Anthony Smith, for a rousing rendition of this work.“The Seasons” has never really got from out of the shadow of its older brother, Haydn’s immensely popular “The Creation”, premiered three years earlier. While the music itself is in every way as compelling, Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s libretto for “The Seasons” is appalling in English and not much better in German. An adaptation of James Thompson’s poem by the same name was divested of its dark metaphors and distorted into a travesty of crickets, frogs, cows; a trivial menagerie. “This whole passage,” wrote Haydn, “with its imitation of the frogs, was not my idea: I was forced to write this Frenchified trash.”

Haydn - The Seasons, photo Peter Hislop.
To see a community orchestra and choir attempt a work of this difficulty, and perform it creditably, was heartening. When the printed program spruiks for new choir members, “knowledge of reading music not a requirement”, one might anticipate the worst. But there were some very fine moments in this performance, especially in the tutti sections, spring’s “O how lovely are the meadows”, and summer’s clamorous “Behold the Sun”.Baritone Simon Lobelson produced a fine bel canto line in the song and accompagnato “Behold, O fond, deluded man” (not the worst English title in this work, by the way). He maintained excellent intonation and metric precision even when the choir and orchestra struggled.

Charles Hudson, a very musical lyric tenor, was stronger in secco recitatives than  Arias, let down by sagging mellismas in some places. His performance of the recitative and accompagnato “A crystal pavement lies the pool”, against sparse organ lines, was excellent.

Rachel Duncan gave us sparkling top notes and expressive lines. The acoustic of the church was not suited to her coloratura, but she compensated as the night went on.

Conductor Leonard Weiss and organist Anthony Smith, were sure hands, keeping choir and orchestra together and supporting  soloists in difficult times. But to see those community singers, those community musicians, demonstrating such obvious love and commitment to music was genuinely uplifting.

And, all in all, they did a reasonable job. There were persistent intonation problems across both groups, with notable exceptions by double bassists Hayley Manning and Lizzy Collier (always perfect), and also the problems of dragging tempi. But the spirit of the work was there. It was joyful or austere, stately or full of chirping crickets. The Austrian countryside did indeed manifest, perhaps because of, and not in spite of, the imperfections. One thing Callas showed us, or Paderevski, or Lhévinne, is that perfection is sometimes overrated.

There was one lovely moment in particular, the very last Double Chorus with solos “And when it dawns, the glorious morn”. Everything was right. The choir and orchestra, perfectly in tune, perfectly in time, and all three soloists glimmering above them like stars. It reminded me of the training montage in “Rocky IV”, where you’re really rooting for the hero as he falls on his face over and over and over, but it is all worth it when he rises triumphantly at the end. Marvellous. I hope SCUNA continues this present path and produces more and more large oratorios – because sometimes a great love of music is more inspiring than great musicians.














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