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S & H Concert Review


Haydn, ‘The Creation’ Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Royal Festival Hall, January 30th 2003 (ME)


 

Haydn regarded ‘The Creation’ as his greatest single work, and it is held in equal esteem by audiences today, who can seldom have heard so convincing an interpretation of it as was given by the OAE under Ivan Fischer. I last heard the work with the same orchestra, but conducted by Charles Mackerras, offering so different a style that one might have thought it a completely different group of musicians. How to present that initial evocation of chaos before the world was created – how to make an audience sit up and take notice when most of them must have heard those opening bars a hundred times? Well, one way is to have the conductor and soloists sneak on whilst the hall is buzzing with pre-concert chatter, hoping that no one will notice – and it worked, with that striking depiction of nothingness as vivid as I can recall. Haydn explained to an early commentator that the reason why the beginning lacks perfect cadences is because ‘there’s no form in anything yet,’ and this was superbly suggested by the orchestra, with the highly dramatic C major which finally gives shape to the miasma sounding as resonant as any music could in this rather deadening acoustic.

Fischer is a very demonstrative conductor, though there were times when his intentions did not seem entirely clear to orchestra and choir, but the choral singing was vivid and the playing showed a remarkable intensity, especially in the woodwind sections. One might quibble with what seemed to be some rather ponderous tempi, however, and the soloists certainly had their work cut out for them even though they were not constantly required to display their trills as the singers under Mackerras had had to do. Haydn’s vocal music is at its most pictorial in this work, and it requires singers who are able to present their parts as operatic characters, an area in which all three of this evening’s soloists excelled.

Christopher Maltman, Lisa Milne and John Mark Ainsley are rapidly becoming the contemporary equivalent of the group of singers of the previous generation often referred to as ‘The Firm’ or ‘The Usual Suspects,’ John Shirley Quirk, Heather Harper and Robert Tear, in that they are so frequently the choice of baritone, soprano and tenor in such works. Maltman is everywhere, and it is always a pleasure to hear him, even if, as on this occasion, he has a tendency to shout at odd moments, and his low notes sometimes flatten out – that low D, for example, is not quite firm. However, his vivid characterization, heard to best advantage in ‘Gleich offnet sich der Erde Schoss’ with its musically onomatopoeic depiction of the insects and the worm, his warmth of communication, both with the audience and with his ‘Holde Gattin’ in Part 3, and his bright, open diction all make such small faults appear irrelevant.

Lisa Milne has one of those ever-smiling voices to go with what appears to be a similar personality, and she is reminding me more and more of Gundula Janowitz every time I hear her. She presents a lovely, creamy tone in such parts as ‘Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk’ and weaves her way most fluently around ‘Nun beut die Flur,’ although ideally one might want a little more forwardness and freshness, and perhaps a little less unremitting serenity.

The tenor has perhaps the least grateful part in the work – trust Haydn to go against certain conventions – and John Mark Ainsley made what he could of it, whilst not quite sounding in his most confident voice. His sense of the words and the nuance of particular phrases is always a joy, even when the diction becomes a little clouded as it did here, and he shaped ‘Aus Rosen wolken bricht’ most beautifully, with neat trills and fine tone on such phrases as ‘reine Harmonie.’ The lovely ‘Mit Wurd und Hoheit angetan,’ with which Uriel introduces Adam and Eve, demands a Lieder –singer’s art in attention to words and dynamics, and he certainly had it to give, especially in his management of ‘An seinen busen…’ and the tender pianissimi of the last section.

Haydn wrote that he had never been so devout as when he was composing ‘The Creation: ‘ Every day I fell to my knees and prayed to God to grant me the strength for a happy completion of this work,’ and that sense of joy at the completion of a great endeavour was made triumphantly clear in this performance, both at the majestic ‘Vollendet ist das grosse Werk’ and the wonderful duet ‘Holde Gattin’ which reminds us what a great composer Haydn truly was – a fitting reflection for the opening concert in this London series, designed to highlight his ‘Creative Genius.’


Melanie Eskenazi


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