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Swansea Festival of the Arts 2009 (1) - Haydn, The Creation: Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Neal Davies (bass), Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 3.10.2009 (GPu)

Haydn’s visits to London, as is well known, exposed him to the example of Handel’s oratorios, particularly in large-scale performances in Westminster Abbey. That they made a considerable impression on him (understandably!) is clear. In his early biographical account Le Haydine (1823), Giuseppe Carpani wrote “Haydn confessed to me that when he heard Handel’s music in London, he was so struck by it that he began his studies all over again as if he had known nothing until that time. He mused over every note and extracted from these learned scores the essence of real musical magnificence”. Even making allowance for rhetorical exaggeration, there is, surely, a sense in The Creation that Haydn has reassessed the conventions of composition in which he had hitherto worked. It is such a fundamental reassessment that permits (necessitates?), for example, the disjunctive music of the opening ‘Representation of Chaos’ or the way in which more than one later piece moves across the keys. But there is surely another ‘English’ influence at work in The Creation too. Haydn visited the astronomer (and composer) William Herschel at his observatory near Slough in June of 1792, having lengthy conversations and looking through Herschel’s 40-foot telescope, then the biggest in the world. The comments of Richard Holmes in his splendid book of 2008, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, are worth quotation: “Unlike Joseph Priestley, whose library was burnt down by a Birmingham mob in 1791, Herschel managed to avoid any public reputation for heterodox opinions. Visits to his observatory were regarded as uplifting, even religious experiences. Joseph Haydn claimed that visit to Herschel … had helped him compose his oratorio The Creation”. Certainly what he saw through Herschel’s telescope must have contributed to the composition, in the orchestral introduction, of some of the earliest music to give a sense of cosmic space and origins and even, of a kind of musical ‘Big Bang’ with the huge C major chord for full orchestra and choir that, textually speaking, marks the creation of light but also the creation of musical form as Haydn’s age understood it. The Creation, in short, is both a glorious piece of music and a fascinating document of cultural history. It was, therefore, a real privilege to hear a fine performance of the work as, appropriately, the first concert of the 2009 Swansea Festival, conducted by Paul McCreesh, a musician particularly associated with the work in recent years.

McCreesh’s recording of The Creation (DG Archiv 477 7361, issued in 2008) has rightly been widely praised; reviewers sprinkled words and phrases like “exhilarating”, “poetic” and “distinguished by its energy, fervour, grace, and often-overwhelming power”. On that recording McCreesh used very large forces, given Haydn’s enthusiasm for the large-scale performances of Handel that he had heard. Here in Swansea we had somewhat smaller forces, chorally and instrumentally, but most of the epithets applied to the recording still rang true. On the recording, McCreesh had the luxury of five soloists, so that the ‘characters’ of Raphael and Adam, and of Gabriel and Eve, were each performed by a different singer. Here, doubtless for good economic reasons, he had to make do with the more normal three soloists. One of the three, Neal Davies, indeed, appeared on that recording, where he sang the role of Raphael; here he was both Raphael and Adam.

Even if McCreesh was working with smaller forces, there was no sense that the performance was ever in danger of being underpowered. Tuttis were full of impact and the chorus made a very healthy noise; but there was exquisite tenderness and delicacy too, in the work of some outstanding soloists (especially in the woodwinds) and, when required, in the singing and playing of the larger forces. Part of the charm of The Creation resides in the interplay of majestic power and of the utmost tenderness, and of the sense of wonder that the relationship between the two engenders. To all of this McCreesh’s performance did something very like full justice. Perhaps the choir started just a little hesitantly and nervously, but they were soon into their stride and they made a major contribution to the success of the evening. It is in the choruses that The Creation is most Handel-like, a point made very persuasively by the nature of this performance.

All the vocal soloists made valuable contributions too. Neal Davies is one of those highly competent and remarkably versatile singers who somehow seem in danger of being rather taken for granted. A singer whose repertoire ranges from Rameau and Vivaldi through Puccini and Janacek to Britten and Dutilleux (not forgetting Gilbert and Sullivan) and who sings oratorio, opera and lieder with equal ease and consistently thoroughgoing musicality, he was on particularly fine form in The Creation. His variety of tone – dark and deep in some early passages, much lighter and lyrically expressive in Part III – and the intelligence of his reading of text were a constant delight. Mhairi Lawson was full of vocal vitality and elegance, the sound of her voice rising above the whole ensemble striking and the intimacy of address in her work as Eve a particular pleasure. The duet work of Davies and Lawson, especially in “The dew-dropping morning” was especially affecting. I have heard Jeremy Budd in better voice than he sounded to be on this particular night, and there were one or two uncertainties of pitch, but also some distinct successes as in the opening recitative of Part III (“In rosy mantle now appears”).

Above all, of course, it was to the work of Paul McCreesh that the success of the evening owed most. With his own ensembles playing and singing Haydn’s great work in a fine English libretto largely prepared by McCreesh too, his conducting was full of a kind of intelligent glee fused with an evident and communicated respect for the work. Marked by both discipline and energy McCreesh’s conducting made for a memorable rendition of a major work of European music. The rest of the Festival will have quite a lot to live up to.

Glyn Pursglove

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