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Haydn oratorio is a loose and engaging event

Sir Roger Norrington conducted Haydn's "The Seasons" in a superb performance Sunday. (Stu Rosner/file)

Haydn's second oratorio, "The Seasons," has never had the popularity and acclaim enjoyed by "The Creation," his first. Based on a popular Scottish poem, "The Seasons" is a bucolic portrait of 18th-century country life, complete with plowmen, shepherds, a hunt, and a wine-soaked feast. Haydn himself found the pastoral subject matter banal, complaining that while his narrators in the biblical "Creation" were angels, in "The Seasons" they were mere peasants.

But whatever textual superiority "The Creation" offers, "The Seasons" is a marvelous piece and offers a truer picture of Haydn's art.

Its earthy wit and affection for the vernacular of Austrian folk music lie deep in the composer's DNA. It also features some of Haydn's best tone painting, including bees, frogs, crickets, and even a bird shot during the hunt. Haydn may have found the animal illustration beneath him -- "Frenchified trash," he reportedly called it -- but he did it, and with simple brilliance. Its majestic choruses are the equal of those in any of the composer's works.

The less rarefied, more populist nature of the piece clearly appeals to Sir Roger Norrington, the Handel and Haydn Society's artistic adviser , who led the ensemble in a superb, full-blooded performance on Sunday afternoon.

Encouraging his listeners to see the piece as entertainment as well as art, he told them to clap "whenever you feel like it," in true 18th-century style. (He then proceeded to turn to the audience at the end of solo numbers to egg on the applause.)

His conducting was loose-limbed and even slightly comic, once or twice signaling for an entrance with his foot. But there was nothing farcical about the color and intensity he drew from the piece, or the level of detail he elicited from the score.

Aside from a few moments of uncertainty, including one near train wreck, the orchestra's playing was strong throughout. The horns bravely roared out their call during the hunt scene, and it was thrilling, if a bit messy. There were lovely contributions from the winds and timpani as well.

Of the three excellent soloists, two were making their local debuts. Tenor Christoph Genz was polished and elegant, and baritone Günther Groissböck resonant and powerful. Both had consistency throughout their ranges. Soprano Karina Gauvin's voice was plush and lyrical, with a wide range of color. They made for a wonderfully balanced trio in the many ensemble numbers, too. As always, the H&H chorus was outstanding, capturing every facet of the country folk they portrayed so well.


Handel and Haydn Society

Sir Roger Norrington, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Sunday