City of London Festival. London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
St Paul’s Cathedral. 24 June 2015
Haydn was a popular composer in London well before his first visit, in 1790. During that visit, according to the minimal note in the City of London Festival programme, he conducted a “hatful” of newly composed symphonies. Who writes this stuff? As well as his hatful of symphonies, he also got to know St Paul’s Cathedral, and heard one of the large-scale performances of Handel oratorios, then all the rage, in Westminster Abbey. But I don’t think Haydn would have seen St Paul’s as an appropriate venue for his 1798 Creation. It was first performed in a theatre in Vienna, with its London première in the similar acoustic of the Covent Garden Theatre. In contrast with these theatre acoustics, he enormous volume of St Paul’s created musical havoc with the sound, even from my privileged seat well towards the front. What people at the back might have heard I can only imagine.
Based on the creation myth from Genesis, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and (I like to think) some of Haydn’s own mischievousness, The Creation was here sung in its rather awkward English translation, rather than the translation into German (as Die Schöpfung) upon which Haydn based his composition. It is a curious work, and one I find difficult to take seriously. Although Haydn stated that ‘I was never so devout as during that time when I was working on The Creation,’ there is more than a touch of humour in the words and music. In this secular age, it is difficult to appreciate the intensity of the religious response to a work like this, written towards the end of the age of enlightenment.
The acoustic issues were apparent from the start, with the opening chord, marked ‘f’ with a decrescendo in the score, but played ‘fff’ by the London Symphony Orchestra, with the timpanist adding an extra ‘f’ (and what sounded like a crescendo) to the mix. The following sotto voce passage was completely lost. When Haydn indicated that the opening Prelude represents chaos, I don’t this was what he had in mind. After the second ‘f’ chord, the music became clearer, and demonstrated the huge orchestra’s excellent ability to play quietly. The woodwind sounded much further away than it was, as their sound had to lift above the strings sitting in front of them. Not surprisingly, the brass and timpani managed to avoid this. The first ‘ff’ marking comes with the dramatic chord on the word ‘light’, something that astonished the Vienna audience at the public premier, but on this case had already been out-done by the opening crash.
Haydn clearly wanted a big sound. He added extra instruments after the premier, ending up with an orchestra of 120 and 60 singers. This performance was almost exactly the other way round, with an orchestra of 61 and 106 singers. But they certainly made a big sound, although even at its most vociferous the choir were overpowered by the orchestra. The three soloists (Sarah Tynan, Robert Murray and Neal Davies) used all the tricks in the book to provide clarity of diction and project their voices into the acoustic, to great success.
Conductor Edward Gardener took the work at a sensible pace, although there were times when he might have added a slight pause to allow the sound to decay before starting a more delicate section. I do like his conducting style – sensitive, not overdone, and clearly concerned with the music rather than personal display. He sensibly avoided the sentimental wallowing that is sometimes heard and, with the excellent connivance of Neal Davies, managed to input just that hint of humour that, to me, at least, is so essential. You could just detect the wry grin on the face of Neal Davies as he worked his way through the various animals whose creation Haydn depicts so delightfully – ‘great hosts of insects’ being one moment when I thought he might lose it. He managed to avoid jumping out of his skin when the brass responded to his announcement of the ‘heavy beasts’. I did find tenor Robert Murray’s habit of piously lifting his eye to the heavens (or perhaps it was just the St Paul’s dome) a little bit excessive; and both he and Sarah Tynan used far more vibrato that I would usually associated with music of Haydn’s era.
This was the first time in many years that I have heard this work performed by a modern instrument orchestra, rather than on period instruments. String players have largely got used to the conventions of earlier times, and they made limited use of finger vibrato. But is was the sound of the modern woodwind that really stood out – or rather, it didn’t, having none of the distinctive edge and character of their late 18th century ancestors. To rub it in, the vibrato of the flutes was unstylistic. You should never feel that you have heard The Creation until you have heard it performed with period instruments. There was a harpsichord continuo, but I have got used to hearing this performed with a (possibly more authentic) fortepiano.
The City of London Festival provided no programme notes, instead referring people to the programme book for the whole festival, only one page of the 67 being devoted to this concert. An A4 handout just listed the names of the singers and orchestra, but failed to mention the mezzo who has to sit at the front for the whole of third part, just to make a small, but I would imagine rather nerve-racking contribution to the final chorus. She was very good, and I liked the support she got from the other three soloists as she joined them front stage.