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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Schöpfung (1798)

Edita Gruberova, soprano - Gabriel, Eva
Josef Protschka, tenor - Uriel
Robert Holl, bass - Raphael, Adam
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Konzerthaus, Vienna 10/11 April 1986
WARNER APEX 2564 61593-2 [58.54 + 56.04]

Haydn’s late masterpiece, The Creation/Die Schöpfung has always existed in two versions, one in English and one in German. Loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost version of the creation story, the libretto had actually been offered to Handel, who never got around to setting it. Johann Salomon, the impresario, passed it to Haydn in 1794. Haydn was interested but apparently did not feel confident enough in his English to set the work in its original format. Back in Vienna he consulted Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Mozart’s friend and one of Vienna’s most knowledgeable musical personalities. He offered to translate the libretto into German, recognising that "this noble subject would provide Haydn with an opportunity to give expression to his inexhaustible genius", and it was this German version which Haydn then set, the whole being translated back into English on completion. It sounds an unwieldy way of creating a great work, but the result was a singularly effective pair of settings each of equal value in primogeniture. Although the English version is probably the better known today, the German version has a resonance with Haydn’s Viennese musical style that sits happily in the context of his music. Although The Creation was partly written in response to Haydn’s great admiration for the music of Handel, it is no simple attempt to copy the Handelian style, although much of the splendid effect is similar.

This Apex recording of the Vienna Symphony and Arnold Schoenberg Choir under Harnoncourt is allegedly taken from a live performance. Harnoncourt records frequently in live concert situations and the energy of live performance is apparent throughout the recording. However, the booklet note gives a confusing picture, implying that the recording was made in 1998 and 1986 as well as in the Rheingau Music Festival and in Vienna’s Konzerthaus. What the actual provenance is, is somewhat hard to tell. There are other annoying errors in the booklet – for example, the continuo is noted as being played a.o. by Herbert Tachezi at the harpsichord, and yet continuo throughout is provided by a fortepiano. These are irritating little errors for those who enjoy the background information to a recording, and so easily corrected by a bit of proper proofreading.

On the other hand, the super budget price of Apex releases does have to be taken into consideration, so perhaps we can forgive them if the performance and the recording are good. Fortunately for Apex they are on to a winner with the performers. The combination of Vienna Symphony and fortepiano continuo mentioned above may seem odd, but under Harnoncourt the VSO sound just as delicate and colourful as any period instrument band, with the added advantage of fabulous blend in the strings and perfect intonation, even in the wind and brass. To listen to the gently undulating strings and pulsing winds under the glorious Adam and Eve duet Von diener Güt’, o Herr und Gott / Heaven and earth, O Lord our God one can hear the impact that Harnoncourt’s long work with the Vienna Concentus Musicus has had on his approach to handling the VSO. There is no sense of the great bulk of rich sound that characterises the orchestra in Bruckner. This shows a truly versatile band. In the same way the almost outlandish double bassoon honk illustrating the ‘weight of beasts’ in Raphael’s Part II aria Nun scheint in vollem Glanze der Himmel / Now the heavens shine in all their glory smacks of the period instrument bands’ obsession with extremities of musical thought and depiction, and is equally effective.

The chorus is the redoubtable Arnold Schoenberg Choir of Vienna, a group that has recorded frequently under Harnoncourt. Diction is tight throughout, the balance with the orchestra is excellent and the choir is able not only to shine forth in the frequently blazing choruses but can also make a true pianissimo; no mean feat for even the best of choirs. The acid test here is always in the first chorus Und der Geist Gottes / And the Spirit of God which depicts the Lord moving over the face of the waters, in the most sublime controlled pianissimo before bursting into a blaze of C major saying "Let there be light". The light is only truly dramatic if the darkness has been deep. Harnoncourt’s forces pull it off splendidly.

The soloists are also very fine. The bulk of the work falls to the soprano and bass, taking two roles each. Edita Gruberova has the right blend of clarity and richness to suit the sometimes rather operatic, but always tasteful, nature of Haydn’s writing. She is well balanced by Robert Holl as Adam and Raphael and their duets in Part III form a definite highlight. The recorded sound is good throughout, with soloists, chorus and orchestra well balanced in the mix. The engineers have generally managed to prevent the chorus from sounding too distant – a frequent problem when the orchestra is so large – and there is a welcome absence of audience noise. So much so, that one wonders slightly about the true nature of the ‘live’ recording mentioned as one of the possibilities in the booklet.

There is a good argument to be made for owning The Creation twice, once in English and once in German. As an option for the German language version Harnoncourt’s reading has the balance of cleanliness, style and charm about right, as well as providing an abundance of brilliant moments. The VSO in this sort of form is as good as any classical band you will hear, the soloists are not only excellent, but also consistent with it, and the price advantage is not to be denied. All in all it makes this release a good value package.

Peter Wells

see alternmative English Language verion

Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809) Die Schöpfung (The Creation) (1798) An Oratorio in three parts for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra Teresa Seidl, soprano (Gabriel, Eva) Algirdas Janutas, tenor (Uriel) Benno Schollum, bass (Rafael, Adam) Kaunas State Choir Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra/Yehudi Menuhin Recorded live at the Rheingau Music Festival, 11 July 1998. [DDD] WARNER APEX 2564 60714-2 [55:44 + 48:19]

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