‘A New Created World’
Haydn: The Creation
Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings, Nina Dunn Studio
Barbican Hall. 28 Sep 2021, and online
After a successful series of AAM Live 2021 live-streamed Covid concerts, the Academy of Ancient Music returned to live performance with Haydn’s Creation, conducted in the Barbican Hall by Laurence Cummings, making his debut as the AAM’s new Music Director. Haydn’s joyous paean of praise to the Biblical creation story was a splendid way to open their post-lockdown “New Worlds” themed season. Their performance also featured inventive and elaborate video designs by Nina Dunn Studio, projected onto the wide wooden rear screen of the Barbican stage.
It was performed in the rather clunky English language version, rather than the German version Die Schöpfung, although I think I detected some textural modification in the text. Although not quite as elaborate as the public premiere, which had around 120 instrumentalists and 60 singers, this large scale performance was performed with considerable power. The opening Representation of Chaos immediately revealed one of the most important features of this performance – the use of period instruments. Their wonderfully distinctive sounds added an extra layer of colour to the overall sound, notably from the horns and the other woodwind instruments. To these was added the sound of an 1801 Broadwood fortepiano, with Alistair Ross making sensitive and intelligent contributions to the continuo. The players of the Academy of Ancient Music, led by Bojan Čičić, excelled throughout.
The climax of the Representation of Chaos is the massive C major chord on “And there was Light!”, the first of several moments of sheer drama in this almost operatic retelling of the creation myths of the Bible. It is a work that can be difficult to perform. It is composed within Haydn’s late-Enlightenment era and much of the text and Haydn’s musical treatment of it can appear rather silly to 21st century ears.
In this performance, it was Matthew Brook who had the key role of guiding us through the creation of the variety of creatures in Day Six of the creation. Although it is impossible to believe that Haydn’s sense of humour isn’t present, that aspect can easily be overdone. Matthew Brook got it just right, not least with the hint of extra glee in his eyes during the phrase “Softly glides the limpid Brook”. He guided us through Haydn’s depictions of the lion, tiger, stag, horse, cattle, sheep, insects, and worms, each creature preceded by an orchestral hint at the creature about to be created. Haydn’s word painting is magnificent. One of the star moments for me is the sound of the contrabassoon, an extraordinary looking contraption in it’s Classical era form, heralding the “heavy beasts” as they tread the ground. The climax of Matthew Brook’s gleefully wide-eyed expressions came with the text “in long dimension creeps with sinuous trace the worm”, the later word declaimed with evident delight on a low D. I’m sure Haydn would have appreciated the audience laughter.
Brook (singing the role of the Angel Raphael) was joined by two other angels, Mary Bevan as Gabriel and Stuart Jackson as Uriel for the first two-thirds of the work. All three were outstanding in their telling of the story, with clear voices helped by singing from various parts of the wide stage. The accompanying video projections must have been far more telling for the live audience rather than the live broadcast. They followed the textural indications well without being too obvious. The only query I had was that the “silver moon” rose from the right of the stage, rather than the more astronomically correct left, but perhaps that is being too northernhemispherist.
Most of the seven days of creation end with an Handelian chorues, notably “The heavens are telling” that concludes Part One and Day Four, here performed with extraordinary power. Laurence Cummings, a renowned Handelian conductor, brought his infectious enthusiasm to the proceedings, his energetic and involved conducting occasionally including launching himself, Zebedee-like, into the air. An advantage of the broadcast version was that the expressions on his face were often featured, giving an aspect of conducting that is not usually seen in concert performance.
Unusually, but very effectively, the two singers for Part Three were not recycled Angels, but two very impressive new singers, Rachel Redmond as Eve and Ashley Riches Adam. I first heard Rachel Redmond singing during the Tage Alter Musik Regensburg 2019, noting n my review that her singing was “the highlight of the concert … Her impressive clarity and focused voice was ideal for the repertoire. She is also one of the rare singers who can do a proper trill”. For me, this rather soppy love story of Adam and Eve can be the silliest part of Haydn’s masterpiece, but the subtle staging lifted it from any soppiness. A key moment came when the pare knelt together at the front of orchestra – a touching scene.