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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Creation
Hob. XXI:2 - Oratorio for solo voices, chorus and orchestra (1765)
Sung in English
Gabriel: Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Uriel: Mark Padmore (tenor)
Raphael: Neal Davies (bass)
Adam: Peter Harvey (baritone)
Eve: Miah Persson (soprano)
Chetham’s Chamber Choir
Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. October 2006, Watford Colosseum
English text with French and German translations included
ARCHIV PRODUKTION 4777361 [79:27 + 29:29]
Experience Classicsonline

This is Creation on a Grand Scale. This recording was made in the same month that these forces gave a warmly received concert performance of the work at London’s Barbican Hall. That performance launched the twenty-fifth anniversary season of the Gabrieli Consort and Players. The involvement of young singers form the renowned Chetham’s School in Manchester on that occasion and for the recording itself was also significant because it marked the beginning of an important educational project by the Gabrieli Consort. I can only imagine how much of a thrill it must have been for these young singers to participate in this recording and the associated concert.

A key aim of this recording has been to perform the work with forces similar in size to those involved in the earliest performances of the work. One is used to “lean beef” performances by period instrument bands but here McCreesh assembles forces on a huge scale.  By my count the orchestra comprises 114 players, including no less than 70 string players, two sets of timpani, four trumpets and five trombones. The deployment of the woodwind is interesting. The players are divided into three Harmonie or wind bands. The second and third of these groups consists of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns while Harmonie I also boasts a contrabassoon and an additional flute. The continuo is provided, very neatly, by a fortepiano. The choir is similarly large, amounting to 91 singers, of which Chetham’s School furnishes half.  I’m a little surprised that in the booklet more isn’t made of the size of the forces and the physical layout of the band for the recording.

This isn’t the first time Creation has been recorded in this manner. In 1994 Christopher Hogwood directed a fine recording for L’Oiseau-Lyre in which he conducted an orchestra of 120 and a choir of 80. Recently, I listed that very recording in Our Classic Classics. Hogwood’s is an estimable performance, which I still admire. However, I think that if I were compiling my selection today it would have to give way to this newcomer.

Before considering Paul McCreesh’s performance, however, I should say that the libretto that is used here may raise a few eyebrows. On the back of the CD packaging we read that Paul McCreesh has “fine-tuned” the original libretto. To be truthful, that statement is a bit disingenuous for there’s been a pretty comprehensive re-writing of much of the English text. Some of the changes are fairly minor, others more significant. McCreesh explains his reasoning and approach in a booklet essay. On balance, most of the changes seem to work well and to render some of the more oddly worded passages of the usual text more sensible. One that sticks out for me occurs in the great chorus  ‘The heavens are telling’. Traditionally the chorus sing “The wonder of his work displays the firmament.” McCreesh’s far better word ordering is: “the firmament displays the wonder of his works.” It’s interesting to note, however, that on the Hogwood recording, which utilised a “new performing edition” by Peter Brown, the traditional English text is employed.

Enough of issues of performance practice! What does the performance sound like?

Well, the first thing to say is that the vast orchestra sounds wonderful. There were one or two moments in the remarkable depiction of Chaos when chording wasn’t completely precise but those are very minor details that are soon forgotten. In this opening movement and, indeed, throughout the whole work, Haydn’s vivid and astonishingly imaginative orchestration is brought out marvellously. I love the often-rustic sound of the wind, notably the woody clarinets, and there are some superb sounds from the horn section – for example during ‘On mighty pens’. In bars seven and eight of ‘In brightest splendour’, the downward crescendo in the orchestral bass makes a superbly exciting effect.  The wonderful soprano aria ‘On mighty pens’ is distinguished not just by fine solo singing but also by some glorious woodwind playing, especially from the principal clarinet and later in the same aria the solo flute’s contribution is just glorious.

Mention of the flutes draws me on to the start of Part III and the evocative ‘In rosy mantle’. The subtlety with which McCreesh and his players touch in the pastel colours of the orchestral introduction is breathtaking. In particular the ear is caught by the flutes, which here sound uncommonly like recorders, and the sound they produce is wonderfully chaste and innocent. This whole passage is ravishing. At the other end of the spectrum, in the “Be fruitful” section of the bass recitative ‘And God created great whales’, the superbly veiled string sound is a delight, underpinned as it is by a suitably trudging string bass line.

The choir matches the excellence of the orchestral contribution. In ‘Awake the harp’ (Part I) they’re lively and clear, obviously relishing this splendid music. Shortly afterwards, in ‘The heavens are telling’, which concludes Part I they sing the exciting pił allegro with tremendous bite and vitality. I also enjoyed enormously the drive and vigour that they bring to ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ (Part II), where the fugue is notably buoyant.

The success of any performance of Creation stands or falls by the soloists, for Haydn gave his soloists some superb, if demanding, music to sing. Let me say straightaway that McCreesh scores one important point by employing five soloists, something that’s not all that often done on disc and even less frequently in the concert hall. The roles of Raphael and Adam ideally require different types of low male voice and here, rightly, McCreesh has a bass and a baritone respectively. Equally, there’s much to be gained by having different types of soprano voices for Gabriel and Eve. McCreesh is served splendidly by all five of his soloists.

Neal Davies, as Raphael, turns in a splendid performance. He has a big, imposing voice but, as a lieder singer of no little distinction, he’s capable of fining down his voice where required. We hear this right at the start, when his opening phrases, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, are delivered in a tone of awed mystery. Later on in Part I he’s admirably dramatic at the start of ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ but later in the same aria, at “softly purling”, his singing is smooth and warmly lyrical. I’ve already mentioned the orchestral playing in ‘And God created great whales’. Davies’s singing is wonderfully evocative here. He’s proud and majestic in ‘Now heaven in fullest glory shines’ (Part II) and his contribution to the trio section of  ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ is quite outstanding.

Arguably, the performance of Mark Padmore is even finer. I thought he perhaps over sang just a fraction at his very first entry. ‘And God saw the light’ is a clarion call but he’s perhaps a touch too emphatic here and that is betrayed by what is, for my taste, a touch too much vibrato. However, he settles very quickly and the rest of his singing is top notch. He’s quite superb in ‘In brightest splendour’. His singing at the start of this demanding solo has great authority but even more impressive is the hushed tone he employs a few bars further on at ‘’With gentle steps and softer, silv’ry beams’. He gives a very expressive account of ‘In native worth’, employing a light but ringing tone. In fact I’d describe his performance of this great aria as elevated. In the hugely demanding ‘In rosy mantle’ Padmore offers a marvellous exhibition of controlled, expressive singing.

The third archangel is the French soprano, Sandrine Piau. It may seem a little odd to engage a Francophone singer for a performance in English – and a Swedish soprano to sing Eve – and I was a little concerned during Miss Piau’s first aria, ‘The glorious heav’nly hierarchy’. She seemed to be trying just a little too much with the words but the sound she produces is beautiful. That’s the only occasion, however, when the words seemed to be an issue. By the time of ‘With verdure clad’, she has settled fully and her rendition of this aria is a delight. ‘On mighty pens’ is most impressive. Here Miss Piau’s singing is expressive, eager and fresh. Aided and abetted by some characterful woodwind playing she delivers an enchanting performance.

For Part III we have different soloists but the standard is still tremendously high. The first duet between Peter Harvey and Miah Persson augurs very well Both singers convey the appropriate degree of open-eyed wonder and innocence. Harvey’s voice displays warmth and character while Miss Persson is marvellously clear. They are at their very best in ‘Graceful consort’. Harvey sings with fine dignity at the start and the way he delivers the words “new rapture” is just right – enthusiastic but not overdone. Miss Persson is gently ecstatic and when the two voices combine it becomes a decorously rapturous duet, full of eighteenth-century elegance. The allegro section of this number – ‘the dew-dropping morning’ – is quite outstanding. The whole performance of this section is vivacious and ardent, featuring some excellent singing and a dynamic orchestral accompaniment. This whole passage, the music of which exhibits great joie de vivre and wit is echt-Haydn. I can honestly say I’ve never heard a better account of it than this one. As well as the fine singing, the nimble rustic woodwind are a source of huge pleasure.

Holding the whole performance together, shaping it and impelling it along with evident affection and enthusiasm is Paul McCreesh. He’s made many fine and imaginative recordings but this strikes me as one of his very finest achievements. His direction is at all times convincing and sure-footed. He’s not afraid to adopt generous tempi when necessary for added effect but he rarely if ever overplays his hand and the quicker music always has tremendous vitality and brio. This is a performance that had me smiling and marvelling anew at Haydn’s invention.

The performance is thrillingly captured by the engineers. However, there is a wide dynamic range on the recording so be warned, when the full ensemble is employed you may disturb the neighbours. On the other hand, as the closing chorus sweeps to its exuberant, joyous conclusion you probably won’t be concerned by such considerations.

Creation is one of the great choral works and it rarely loses its power to delight, thrill and move the listener in equal measure. Certainly Haydn’s great masterpiece makes its full effect in this exceptional performance. I am confident that we have here one of the outstanding recordings of 2008.

John Quinn


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