Haydn: The Creation

Haydn: The Creation
Handel + Haydn Society, Harry Christophers
CORO: COR16135. 51’39+46’36

Sarah Tynan, soprano; Jeremy Ovenden, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone

Boston’s Handel + Haydn Society gave the first US performance of Haydn’s The Creation in 1819, just three years after their foundation, having performed Part One in their first year. Their name (at the time, a representation of their interest in ‘old’ and ‘new’ music), has a resonance with The Creation. It was Haydn’s response to hearing Handel’s Isreal in Egypt and Messiah in the 1791 Westminster Abbey Handel Festival, with a large choir and orchestra of more than 100 people. Two hundred years after their foundation, the Handel + Haydn Society’s bicentennial season ended with two performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Boston on 1 and 3 May 2015. This double CD is a live recording of those performances. I didn’t detect any audience noise or other potential live recording mishaps, but certainly detected the thrill and exhilaration of live music making. It bubbles over with the energy and vitality of a live performance, rather than a carefully crafted studio recording.

I have always found The Creation a tricky work to really appreciate, both musically and in its sentiments, both far removed from modern ears and thoughts. The importance of listening with 18th century ears is even more relevant in the sequence after the depiction of God creating man – and woman. It isn’t exactly a feminist creed, with the biblical explanation that woman was created ‘for man’, whose law is ‘her will’, and who he is to ‘guide’. I confess that I also often have to stifle giggles at some of Haydn’s more obvious musical commentaries on the evolutionary scenes he is depicting. These are thrown into sharper focus with the use of period instruments, not least the gloriously guttural sound of a contrabassoon, only slightly moderated by its companion bass trombone.

Harry Christophers keeps the pace up well, resisting the temptation to wallow or over-romanticise Haydn’s music: or, at the other extreme, to make fun of it or unduly lighten it. It is, by the standards of the day, intended to be a powerful work, but is still as nothing compared to the ‘powerful works’ that were to come at a later period of musical history. Striking that balance is tricky, but is superbly done here. My only interpretation quibble is that Christophers adds an unnecessary and unmarked crescendo into the ff ‘And there was light’, thereby slightly reducing the effect of that dramatic first burst of full choir and orchestra.

The singing from all three soloists is excellent, with clear diction and pronunciation, although I did find Sarah Tynan’s vibrato rather excessive for my taste. Matthew Brook just about manages to curtail his natural inclination to ham it up, for example, in Raphael’s Part 2, Scene 2 Recitative and Aria depictions of ‘the tawny lion, flexible tiger, nimble stag, cattle, hosts of insects and a worm’ followed by the ‘shoals of fish and heavy beasts’. Tenor Jeremy Ovenden is eloquent as Uriel, but is usurped by bass-baritone Matthew Brook as the Part 3 Adam to Sarah Tynan’s Eve.  The 42-strong choir are similarly clear of diction and with pretty good English, rather than American English accents, although vibrato is occasionally apparent from the sopranos, particularly in their louder moments.

A fine recording of a noble work, and a suitable acknowledgement of the 200 year history of Boston’s Handel + Haydn Society.

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