For the third and final performance of Haydn’s masterpiece The Creation, a good number entered the comfortable Hamer Hall over an hour early, to hear MSO’s Director of Artistic Planning, Ronald Vermeulen’s well-attended and informative pre-concert talk.
Rarely for the Classical Period, where music was usually ‘”absolute’” this work draws on the many opportunities for word-painting, a characteristic of the Baroque period. The oratorio structure of recitatives, arias and choruses bringing texts (often biblical) to life had been firmly established in Handel’s great works. These had received renewed interest during Haydn’s time in London, where he is recorded as having attended a performance of Israel in Egypt in 1791 with a choir and orchestra of Mahlerian proportions.
Haydn had been given a text of unknown authorship, based on Genesis, the Psalms, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. He asked Baron Gottfried von Swieten for a German translation, and composed the work in German, but after initial performances in Vienna in 1798/9, in 1800 it received the London premiere translated back into English by Swieten. The MSO has used Paul McCreesh’s 2009 excellent revision of Swieten’s familiar text, correcting some mistranslations, improving grammar and changing word order to improve word stress.
Haydn’s opening Chaos would have sounded chaotic to the classical ear, with its dissonances and apparent lack of structure, and Sir Andrew Davis used his hands to good effect, shaping the strings underpinning the opening, with enormous dynamic variation, and allowing the woodwind colours to bubble up to the surface.
The archangels recount the Creation story from Genesis. Raphael (bass) generally sings of the earth and the waters. Uriel (tenor) is often introducing the extra-terrestrial, while Gabriel (soprano) comments on the fields, flowers, fruits and trees.
Neal Davies (bass) brought a mysterious quality to a role that is often portrayed in a rather more grand and fulsome manner. Andrew Staples (tenor) was at his best with the recitatives, with great clarity and excellent diction. The fortepiano and cello continuo allowed the recitatives to flow in the manner of a Mozart opera.
Siobhan Stagg’s Gabriel was exquisite –her luminous tone throughout the range was equally at ease with florid passagework and longer cantabile melodies, and her diction was always clear. Her serene appearance added to the effect.
The Chorus text in the first two parts of Creation is derived mainly from Psalms, with “The heavens are telling the glory of God” one of the most well known. The MSO Chorus (numbering about 80 on this occasion, and prepared by guest chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones) was outstanding. Although the male voices were clearly outnumbered, the balance was fine, and the attention to detail in articulation and phrasing contributed to excellent choral diction. The semiquavers in “Awake the harp, the lyre awake” have undone many a soprano section, but the women of the MSO Chorus were well in control.
The MSO Chorus and soloists concluded Part Two with “Achieved is the glorious work”, at the closing of the sixth day of the creation story. The duos and trios from soloists contrasted effectively, and all was made ready for the final part, drawn mainly from Milton’s Paradise Lost, with Uriel introducing Adam and Eve, the new roles for Neal Davies and Siobhan Stagg.
As Adam, Davies introduced a lovely lyricism that had not been present earlier, complementing Stagg’s warm and innocent Eve. Eve’s happiness in her lot as Adam’s obedient consort is perhaps stretching 21st century sensibilities, but would not have troubled 18th century audiences!
Effective orchestral colour is the foundation for the success of this wonderful work, and Sir Andrew Davis and the MSO were not found wanting – the opening Chaos, the glorious first sunrise (a wonderful expansion of the sunrise which Haydn had portrayed in his 6th Symphony), an array of beasts, birds and insects – the roaring lion, flexible tiger, nimble stag, neighing steed, bleating sheep, swarming insects, and sinuous worm. All orchestral sections contributed admirably to Haydn’s huge tonal palette.
The final chorus of praise saw mezzo soprano Shakira Tsindos join the other soloists for their very brief contribution to the ‘’Amens”, and orchestra and choir concluded the performance with an energetic flourish, leaving us with Haydn’s infectious joyfulness.
Reviewer Margaret Arnold attended the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Haydn’s Creation on June 17, 2017, at Hamer Hall, Melbourne Arts Centre.