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S & H Proms Review 2002

Haydn, ‘The Creation’ Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Charles Mackerras, Choir of the Enlightenment, Christiane Oelze, Paul Groves, John Relyea, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday July 20th 2002. (ME)


‘In my whole life I will not hear another piece of music so beautiful, and even if it had lasted three hours longer, and even if the stink and sweat-bath had been much worse, I would not have minded.’ - thus a member of the audience at the first performance of ‘The Creation’ in 1799, and it is certain that Saturday night’s audience at the Proms were reminded anew of this work’s wondrous beauty, even if they still had to endure, not exactly a sweat-bath, but a less than ideally cool environment: a disappointment to some after the alleged cool-as-cucumbers ambience of the first night. Had the spanking new AC system given up after one airing? Or, as I suspect, did some of the audience on that first night simply object to being ‘cold’ (i.e. not bathed in sweat) – it being a pre-requisite of being British that one must suffer, one especially relevant here at this most self-consciously British of our festivals? Further reports on this vital topic to come after next week’s concerts, but for now back to Haydn.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s declared aim is to combine period authenticity with contemporary values, and this increasingly eminent band certainly lived up to that claim on this occasion, as it did to another of its specialities, which is the ability to respond flexibly and sensitively to the direction of a wide variety of conducting styles. Sir Charles Mackerras clearly has strong views about this work, particularly in terms of contrasts in dynamics and of ambitious decorations required from the singers, and his own demanding standards clearly inspired the players who responded with real fire, apart from a few peculiar raspings from the lower brass instruments. The Choir of the Enlightenment sang with gusto although I felt that there were occasions when I would have liked a more full-throated approach; once or twice I sensed some of that genteel spirit with which Haydn is frequently associated but which isn’t really appropriate for this particular work. However, none of that was evident at the crucial moments of ‘Es werde Licht, und es ward Licht’ and ‘Vollendet ist das grosse Werk,’ the latter being notable for the freshness of its attack.

Those choral passages may be the most overtly Handelian parts of ‘The Creation’ but it is in the solo parts that Haydn’s greatness and individuality really shine through, and this concert offered a team of soloists which it would be very difficult to imagine being bettered on any platform in the world. John Relyea’s fine-grained bass-baritone is ideal for this music, and he phrased his opening ‘Und der Geist Gottes…’ superbly; his temperament is clearly a serious one, and he was at his best in the more solemn of Raphael’s narratives, missing perhaps a little of the humour of such lines as ‘Am Boden das Gewürm,’ although his low D is there, if not absolutely solid. As Adam, he sang ‘Nun is die erste Pflicht erfüllt’ most nobly, and the duet with Eve was delectable, even if he seemed a bit too shy to look at his ‘Holde Gattin.’ This was a notable Proms debut from a fine young singer whose forthcoming Covent Garden performances in Semele and Lucia di Lammermoor should be anticipated with delight.

Paul Groves is a tenor well known to opera audiences, and it is surprising that the coming season will provide only the first chance for ROH audiences to hear his remarkable Tamino. The tenor part in ‘The Creation’ is frequently given to light-voiced, sweetly lyrical singers, but when a more robust tenor such as Groves takes it on, the results are remarkable; this is a voice for Florestan as well as for Belmonte, and his properly heroic timbre was heard right from his first moment at ‘ Und Gott sah das Licht…’ He sang ‘Mit Würd und Hoheit angetan’ superbly, with ringing, golden tone as well as the most beautifully tender pianissimi in the final section, and his diction and phrasing throughout were exemplary, nowhere more so than in ‘Aus Rosen wolken bricht,’ where he gave such tender emphasis to ‘Seht das beglückte Paar’ and such ideally heroic declamation to the closing lines.

The audience’s favourite was clearly the soprano Christiane Oelze, who was very nearly given applause after ‘Nun beut die Flur,’ but we collectively thought the better of it after Mackerras led firmly into the next number. Here is a soprano who has everything; a lovely, lyrical voice which is meltingly tender rather than merely creamy; perfect diction, obvious intelligence and musicality, and a stage presence and bearing that are both dignified and animated. London audiences do not hear enough of her in concert and recital, although she will add to her list of Glyndebourne roles with Ilia under Simon Rattle next season; it continues to mystify me that we do not see her at the Wigmore every season – it’s high time she became one of ‘the usual suspects.’

I have previously compared Oelze to Lucia Popp, and I stand by that accolade, but in this piece, the most obvious comparison is of course with Janowitz. Mackerras certainly made his soprano work to achieve the desired effects, and it is enormously to her credit that she not only managed the most florid trills I’ve ever come across in the soprano arias here, but made every word tell in addition to producing liquid, ardent tone. When you listen to Janowitz sing ‘Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk’ you’re aware that this is a wonderful, ‘whipped-cream’ sound, but compared to Oelze the diction is indistinct, and in such moments as that delightful ‘girrt’ during the ‘dove’ music in ‘Auf starkem Fittiche’ Janowitz is simply singing, whereas Oelze is making the words come alive. ‘Nun beut die Flur’ gave us ambitious trills sung with apparently careless ease, serene phrasing and scrupulous care for words, and provided the memorable high point of this superb concert, rapturously received by an audience who, like that very first one in 1799, would not have objected if the evening had lasted another three hours.

Melanie Eskenazi


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