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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Schöpfung (The Creation)
Max Emanuel Cencic, Gabriel (sop);
Christian Bauer, Uriel (ten);
Ernst Jankowitsch, Raphael and Adam (bass);
Gertraud Schmid, Eva (sop);
Wiener Sängerknaben; Chorus Viennensis
Symphonieorchester der Wiener Volksoper/Peter Marschik
Recorded live in the Musikverein, Vienna, 1994
CAPRICCIO DVD CC93507 [concert: 104:00; bonus 28:00]

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Tackling this DVD has been a salutary experience. I was shocked at how easily my judgement about what I was hearing was so easily clouded by what I saw.

What I saw was this. First, the interior of the splendid concert venue of the Musikverein which prompted thoughts about the appropriateness of the venue, for if the Creation has a spiritual home, Vienna is it. The hall is full; the soloists, orchestra and choir, including the famous Vienna Boys Choir in their white and blue sailor suit outfits, are assembled. In comes Peter Marschik, the conductor and former Vienna boy chorister. He turns to the players and the camera then sees what the audience cannot. He is perspiring and looks nervous. It is the look of a man who might just have had a row with somebody off-stage. This edginess I perceive to be transmitted to the players for there is some raggedness in the orchestral introduction. Raphael begins to sing, the role taken by Ernst Jankowitsch, a mature bass who looks solid, confident and dependable, and things seem to settle down, . Then comes the magical entry of the choir, led off by the boys on whom the camera focuses. It is clear that some of them come in late, fudging the effect. They all look bored and do not move their lips very much to enunciate the words. I can also see that some have vibrating throats, a clear indication that they are generating vibrato. This triggers in me a prejudice born out of an Anglican upbringing that suggests that boys should not have their pure voices corrupted by such a nefarious foreign practice. Then comes the bit that, at the first performances over two centuries ago, had a devastating effect on those Viennese in attendance, many of whom must have thought it the greatest moment in musical history: the blazing sound that accompanies "Let there be Light, and there was Light". The boys still look bored.

Later on Gabriel enters. This soprano part is normally sung by a woman so I get a shock when I see it is a man. Max Emanuel Cencic is a male soprano. I don't know how he gets up there but he certainly hits the notes which in this score go up to high B. The trouble is that the camera zooms towards his face and I have to witness a sight I've never seen before which is an extraordinary physical manifestation of vibrato. His lower jaw waggles widely up and down with the lower lip violently vibrating in sympathy. I find this both comical and embarrassing and wish the camera would go elsewhere. The other soloist who sings Uriel looks very committed but tense, probably because he is sweating. It then dawns on me that everyone is sweating, presumably on account of it being a hot summerís evening.

It was at this point that I realised that my negative thoughts about the performance were being dictated by what I saw rather than what I was hearing, so I turned off the picture and listened again. The performance markedly improved and I learnt a lesson. Some affecting and moving moments could be heard and a genuine sense of commitment apparent. There were some problems, particularly at the beginning and the first entry of the boys was poor. But generally, things were much better than I had first thought. There was some good playing from the Wiener Volksoper orchestra although it has to be said that it is not the Vienna Philharmonic; the orchestra people will associate with this great concert hall. Maybe it is unfair to make the comparison.

There was one issue though that still would not go away for me and that concerned the male soprano as Gabriel. Why he was chosen I do not know. He is another ex-Vienna chorister. Perhaps it was thought he might better match the boy voices in the choir. This is not the case. His very penetrating sound does not at all match the blended choral sound the boys make. His oscillating jaw reflects the sound of an over-aggressive vibrato and this, together with the hard edge of his tone, got on my nerves after a while. He has an impressive, agile technique and his high As, B flats and Bs can be thrilling but in this performance the sound is out of place.

Huge excitement was generated in Vienna at the first big public performance of The Creation in 1799; there was a semi-private premiere the year before. One object of special attention was the beautiful teenager, Theresa Saal, who in singing Gabriel was making her public debut. If only she could have been spirited back for this performance. Maybe the next best thing in modern times would be Gundula Janowitz whose distinctive, young-sounding timbre might have better matched the Vienna Boys. She can be heard on the Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic, available on CD.

Although I have admitted to being over-influenced by what I saw, there is a point to be made here about the Vienna Boys. Those buying a DVD rather than a CD presumably wish to get nearer to the impression of attending a live performance. Performers are communicating directly to people in front of them and they need to project. Thatís elementary showbiz. For choirs this means using their mouths to ensure that the words are heard as clearly as possible, not burying their heads in the music, looking as if they are enjoying themselves, and above all, giving an impression they want to share the experience with the audience. Even in my school chapel choir, these issues were constantly being hammered home. Watching this performance of The Creation, I was regularly distracted by the subversive thought that an English Cathedral choirmaster should be sent out to bash these Vienna boys into shape.

A final but different sort of irritation: there are a total of 34 tracks on the DVD, several under one minute long, and at the end of each one, proceedings come to a halt and the menu comes up on screen. You then have to move the cursor on to the next track to get going again. This can even happen in the middle of numbers and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It is one reason alone that makes this product unacceptable.

There is a "bonus" documentary. This is in pictures-with-voice-over plus performing extracts format and is a long-winded essay on the creation myth and its interpretation through the ages. It has a partisan, evangelical flavour to it that I thought inappropriate and would not aid understanding and appreciation of Haydnís great, humanistically flavoured masterpiece.

There is not much to choose from when it comes to DVDs of this work. Your best bet might be Arthaus Musikís 1992 version with The Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Peter Schreier, filmed at the Jesuit Church in Luzerne.

John Leeman

see also review by Colin Clarke

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