Haydn: The Creation
London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall. 4 February 2017
This continuation of the Southbank ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ series of concerts featured Joseph Haydn’s 1798 Creation. As with two of the pieces in the previous London Philharmonic Orchestra concert (reviewed here), it focussed on the beginning of the world, in this case as depicted in the late Bronze Age writings of the Old Testament. Haydn once said that when he thought of God he could write only cheerful music, and this is evident in his often seemingly irreverent take on God’s creation. Sir Roger Norrington has a similar twinkle in his eye, and was an ideal conductor for Haydn’s often (but perhaps not always intentionally) amusing moments.
As well as his pioneering work in the interpretation of music of earlier times, Norrington is also an enthusiastic supporter of audiences. He has a winning way, which he used on this occasion for another of his themes – applause. Swinging round in his swivel chair to address us all, he read a letter from somebody who attended the first performance of The Creation, stressing in particular the fact that the audience applauded frequently, both after and during each section. This Norrington encouraged, often by swinging round and starting the applause himself. He also made the point that enjoyable music like this must not be heard ‘in solemn Victorian silence’.
The three soloists were outstanding, and fitted well within Norrington’s view of the performance of music of Haydn’s time. There was practically no vibrato from any of them, making the texture and ornaments crystal clear. Soprano Lucy Crowe replaced Susan Gritton at short notice, and instantly became the outstanding singer in her roles as Gabriel and Eve. I was particularly impressed with her use of ornaments and elaborations on repeat sections. Tenor Thomas Hobbs was an eloquent Uriel although, unusually in musical affairs as a tenor, didn’t get the girl. That honour went to baritone Christopher Maltman who started as Raphael before the moving around of chairs saw him as Adam to Lucy Crowe’s Eve.
With the exception of the trumpets, the orchestra used modern instruments, but played in a commendable period style, with no finger vibrato from the strings and clear articulation. Amongst the many solo moments, it was flautist Juliette Bausor who had the most work to do, along with fortepianist Catherine Edwards. It was good to see Norrington shake hands with her every time he left the stage. One of the key moments in the Creation is the depiction of the ‘heavy beasts of the ground’ with two massive honks from the contrabassoon. The period version of this instrument is funnier looking than its chunky modern example, not least because of the ithyphallic shiny extension that slots into the top. As is his want, Norrington positioned the orchestra in an three-sided square with him in the centre, a nice arrangement that repositions the leader and principals close to him, rather than to one side. He is an inspirational conductor to watch, with a strong feeling of working with, rather than against, his fellow musicians.
The London Philharmonic Choir are a volunteer choir, but sang like a professional one. Well drilled in matters such and standing and sitting and page turning en masse, they were equally impressive in the choral number. A lovely bit of Norrington theatre had them start sitting down, only to stand with exquisite dramatic effect at the words ‘and there was LIGHT’, one of the most exciting moments in music.
Compared to the depiction of creation myths by Rebel and others, as heard in last week’s LPO concert, Haydn’s depiction of the creation of the earth is evocatively mysterious, but not in the least frightening oe confusing. He was a happy chap, and this shines through his music.
The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 13 February, and will be available for 30 days after that via the internet. It is well worth listening to.