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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Die Schöpfung (1795)
Simone Kermes, Dorothee Mields, sopranos;
Steve Davislim, tenor;
Johannes Mannov, Locky Chung, basses;
Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble/Thomas Hengelbrock
Recorded in July 2001 at Montforthaus, Feldkirch, Austria.
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 05472 77537 2 [71.59+27.16]


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In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

Thus the earliest steps in the creation of the world, as reported in the book of Genesis, and it can be confidently asserted that there has been no civil engineering project to rival it since. Just assembling the materials must have been a challenge, and it’s perfectly logical that once in place, and before he started trying to inject any order into it all, God decided to create light so that he could see what he was doing. And what he saw, unsurprisingly given the scale of the job, was absolute chaos.

God had set himself a mighty task, and in 1796, Joseph Haydn, a mere mortal, set himself the – for him – equally mighty task of expressing it in music. His oratorio opens with a celebrated sound painting of the chaos God saw once he spread his materials before him. A lesser composer might have produced something full of loud discord and rapid, aimless melody, but Haydn is far more subtle than that. In his representation of chaos things move slowly, the different elements of the earth abutting each other in no particular order; darkness is there, certainly, and little is resolved. And yet the immense calm of the mind of God as he contemplates the task he has set himself is also uncannily present, as is a quite extraordinary sense of anticipation of what is to come. And what follows is the separation of light from darkness, represented by Haydn, as anyone who has ever heard The Creation knows and will never forget, as an astonishing burst of light on a C major chord from the choir and the orchestra. The rest of the work follows the development of the project, recounted by three angels, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. God took six days over the job – with no penalty, as far as we know - for late completion. On the second day he separated off some of his materials and made heaven, and on the third day he organised things so that all the water flowed together into a few places leaving dry areas which he called ‘land’ and where he created plant life. He knew nothing about photosynthesis, which explains why it was only on the fourth day that he created the sun, moon and stars. (And we are bound to wonder where the light came from on that first day.) On the fifth day he created all the creatures that live in the sea and those which fly above the earth, and gave them the means to renew their own species. On the sixth day he created all the creatures that walk on the earth, including one that he called ‘man’. To these creatures too he gave the means to multiply, and to man the specific instruction to dominate and subdue all the rest, perhaps the only mistake he made in the whole job. On the seventh day he rested, and so should we.

Haydn began his Creation in 1796 and took significantly longer than six days over it. He had been in London during 1794 and 1795, his second journey there and a huge personal triumph for him. He was enormously impressed during his stay by the oratorios of Handel, and returned home with the text, in English, of The Creation. We don’t know who wrote this, but we do know that it was later translated into German and to some extent adapted by Gottfried van Swieten. In the text, as set by Haydn, the story of the creation is recounted mostly in recitative with reflection and comment provided in the form of arias and choruses. It’s quite a long work – around a hundred minutes in the performance under review – and in three parts, of which the first two deal with the creation proper – Part 2 ends at the close of the sixth day of God’s labours – and Part 3 paints an idyllic picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. As a subject it was almost bound to appeal to Haydn: there is nothing of the tragic here, and the only darkness is at the outset where God and Haydn work together to create light. And the story gives ample opportunity to the composer to exploit his characteristic simplicity of utterance. By its very nature everything about the earth and the creatures that lived upon it at this time was innocent, unsullied by experience. We hesitate over the word ‘naïve’, but it’s not a bad word to use, even if ‘simple’ and ‘childlike’ get closer, perhaps, to the essential nature of the work. If the opening of the oratorio, the representation of chaos, is musical sophistication to the highest degree, the word ‘naïve’ certainly reflects well the composer’s way in representing other things. The moment of the creation of light is a wonderful coup de théâtre, and as early as Raphael’s first recitative (Disc 1, track 4) we hear the composer’s wonderfully childlike way with the thunder and lightning storms that plague the earth on this second day, followed by the cooling rain, even hail, and lastly, the light flaky snow. Similar techniques are applied to parading before us the different creatures God creates, from the bounding lion to the slithering worm, and the double bassoon has a short and hilarious moment of glory in Raphael aria Nun scheint in vollem Glanze (Disc 1, track 22) when we are told of the heavy beasts which now tread the earth.

Killjoys over the years, Tovey amongst them, have pointed out that the music of Part 3 is less inspired than the rest. Some have even intimated that Haydn would have done better to rest, like God, after the sixth day. Karajan and others have been led to cut passages or even whole numbers from Part 3. Revisiting this wonderful work after a long period of abstinence I’m disappointed that I now find this criticism to be correct to some extent, though how much it matters is another question. Parts 1 and 2 are made up of music of absolutely incandescent genius, whereas Part 3 is slightly less so. Who are we to complain? And besides, if we didn’t have this Eden scene we would have to do without Adam and Eve, so innocent and sweet-natured – Eve had as yet to develop an interest in fruit – like two youngsters, breathless, tentative, not knowing if they want to be in love or are happy just being best friends like before.

Almost anyone who has sung in amateur choirs for any length of time will have sung The Creation at least once, and given the wonderful music its popularity as a choral society standby is only surprising in that there is not an enormous amount of choral work in it. There is enough, however, and it is striking enough, to provide contrast and points of drama where needed. There are twenty-eight names on the chorus list accompanying this recording, though only eighteen of them get onto the photograph. It’s a predominantly young person’s choir, founded by the conductor in 1991, and they have all the sensitivity, subtlety and virtuosity required for the work. The only thing they lack, at certain moments, and that inevitably, is sheer weight. The orchestra plays exceptionally well on period instruments, and if one draws attention in particular to some lovely flute and clarinet playing this is not to detract from the superb quality of the rest. A fortepiano is used for the recitatives. The soloists are all outstandingly good, with particular mention for Simone Kermes who sings the part of Gabriel. There is real wonder in her voice as she tells us how all in heaven behold the marvellous work that God has done (Disc 1, track 5). Her aria at the beginning of Part 2 (Disc 1) beautifully expresses the different birds which begin to colonise the earth, though I found her trills, as the dove coos to his mate, slightly overdone. If Dorothee Mields and Locky Chung seem marginally less vivid than the others this is probably more to do with the limited range of expression demanded by the music than anything else, and their evocation of Adam and Eve in the Garden is deeply moving all the same. (A curiosity: Haydn does not ask for a solo alto in The Creation, except for four bars in the final chorus. The singer is not named here, which is a pity as she would be in excellent company – on Karajan’s first DG recording these four bars are credited to Christa Ludwig!)

Thomas Hengelbrock directs a clear and unfussy reading. He has an excellent grasp of each of the different elements of the score, which he communicates extremely well to his forces and thence to the listener. His view of the work overall is integrated and forward moving. He is an outstanding accompanist, most notably in Gabriel’s Part 2 aria already mentioned, where he allows his soloist considerable freedom, following her exceptionally well when she lingers yet at no time allowing things to drag. He demonstrates, at times, a certain excitability however, which is rather at odds with the essentially smiling nature of the music. There are a few changes of tempo within individual pieces which seem at least questionable, and the bliss expressed in the first part of Adam and Eve’s duet (Disc 2, track 4) would have been more convincing had the accompaniment been more affectionate, less staccato and accentuated. One or two tempi seem over-rapid, too, especially in the choruses. The great chorus which ends Part 1 (Disc 1, track 14) and which all amateur singers know as The Heavens are Telling sets off at a tremendous lick and at the point where the composer asks for an increase in tempo the conductor doesn’t do much. At two subsequent points, however, he does push the tempo on with the result that the reading of this chorus has much brilliance but not very much joy. But the reading as a whole is affectionate and convincing, and he totally avoids the kind of personal accretions which disfigure Harnoncourt’s reading, a conductor with whom Hengelbrock has frequently worked.

This is a thoroughly recommendable recording of Haydn’s astonishing masterpiece overall, with much of its freshness of character coming, I think, from the fact that so many young people are involved in it. The conductor might have encouraged a slightly more carefree manner from time to time, but that is the only criticism I can make, and many may not even share it. Parts 1 and 2 are presented complete on the first disc, Part 3 on the second. The booklet provides the sung text and interesting contemporary translations into English, French and Italian. The introductory essay is also interesting but the translation is rather garbled.

There have been many excellent recordings of The Creation and some of them approach, even if they do not attain, the ideal. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s reading is brilliant and technically assured, but Haydn’s smile and childlike simplicity seem sadly absent, and if period performance is important to you Hengelbrock’s performance is to be preferred. Leonard Bernstein’s second reading, for DG, is constantly smiling, and is notable also for the prominence he gives to the trombones in the closing passage of The Heavens are Telling, a thrilling moment. This performance has its overblown moments however, and though I enjoy it very much not everybody will be so forgiving or indulgent. For them, I recommend Münchinger on Decca, with Elly Ameling and Tom Krause among the excellent soloists, and especially Igor Markevitch, recorded in mono and published in 1958, with the incomparable Irmgard Seefried deeply moving as both Gabriel and Eve.

William Hedley


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