Die Schöpfung (The Creation) [Sung in German]
Lucia Popp (soprano: Eva and Gabriel)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor: Uriel)
Benjamin Luxon (baritone: Adam and Raphael)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded at a concert in the Royal Festival Hall, London on 19 February 1984
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: March 2006
CD No: LPO 0008 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
This is a straightforward performance using modern instruments but with a sensitive and musical understanding of Haydn’s style and requirements. In assessing the value of this recording it would clearly not be relevant to compare with period-instrument versions. There are several challenging modern-orchestra renditions, including the very subjective Bernstein, but there is one alternative issue, which it is essential to consider because of its apparent similarity. This is Decca’s recording with Antal Dorati and the Brighton Festival Chorus and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The soprano and baritone on that recording are also Lucia Popp and Benjamin Luxon. As if these similarities were not sufficient, the total timings of the two versions are remarkably similar. The Dorati dates from December 1976 in Kingsway Hall and the venue for Tennstedt’s performance is the essence of the contrast between the two versions.
One noticeable difference concerns the placing of the soloists – on Decca they are centrally placed and comfortably ‘present’ without being too close; on the BBC broadcast (presumably the source is from Laurie Watt’s collection rather than the BBC’s archive; hence the credit to Watt for “facilitating the release”) they are placed half-left and are slightly more distant. I can accept this alternative balance but I seem to detect a slightly greater use of vibrato by Popp and much greater use of it by Luxon. It also seems that Luxon occasionally drifts minimally sharp of the note in the concert performance – I might not have noticed this but for close comparison with the older version where he is admirably accurate.
In terms of performance a rule of thumb seems to be that Tennstedt takes fast music faster than Dorati but slow music slower. A huge contrast between the two versions is to be found in Gabriel’s long recitative, “Und Gott schuf grosse Walfische” (And God created great whales). In Dorati’s performance this magnificent section with its wonderful striding bass part flows forward at an ideally paced Allegretto from “Seid fruchtbar…” (Be fruitful…) onwards. With Tennstedt, the pace is nearer Adagio and the exhortation to rejoice at the final line is therefore undermined. In this passage, too, Luxon hardly sounds the same singer. The earlier Decca displays Luxon’s superbly rich, authoritative, mature voice, whereas the later performance (with added vibrato) seems much lighter. Somehow the 47-year-old Luxon sounds far less mature than his earlier, 39-year-old alter ego. Throughout, recorded balance apart, Lucia Popp’s radiant voice gives almost as much pleasure in the live performance but Luxon seems almost a different singer. The Royal Festival Hall acoustics seems not to cause much problem with regard to Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s clear-cut tenor and it is possible to compare his voice of a few years earlier, too, because he sings in the fill-up to the Dorati recording (Haydn’s “Salve Regina”).
Turning to more general matters, Tennstedt conducts powerfully, the orchestra is weighty and he makes an ideally huge dynamic contrast at one of the greatest of musical moments, when the chorus blazes forth with “Und es ward Licht” (And there was light). Sad to relate, a very noticeable double noise during the quiet section before this dramatic stroke, which reduces the impact of the glorious moment. Why could this not have been removed – isn’t that what the art of refurbishment is all about?
However, the overall recorded quality gives some cause for concern. Taking the chorus “Die Himmel erzählen” (The Heavens are telling) as a pertinent example, I much approve the forwardness of the chorus – especially as this does not submerge the excellent woodwind detail. On the other hand this forwardness is not accompanied by a sense of presence. The Royal Festival Hall has a generally dry acoustic and it could be that the BBC Radio 3 engineers sought to ameliorate this. If so, it was achieved by sacrificing clarity – balance is usually acceptable but there is always a feeling of cloudiness, which could though be due to the over-processing in the current re-mastering.
At the risk of seeming to damn with faint praise, I find Tennstedt’s performance sensitive and worthy. I am sure that it would have seemed rather better than that on the night. Recording/re-mastering quality probably accounts for my reserved feelings about this set. For period performance, John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv Produktion has always been a favourite of mine, but for a modern-orchestra presentation I still find Dorati unsurpassed.