The Creation, Hob. XXI:2 [Sung in English]
Gabriel – Sandrine Piau
Uriel – Mark Padmore
Raphael – Neal Davies
Eve – Miah Persson
Adam – Peter Harvey
Chetham’s Chamber Choir
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Recorded October 2006 in Colosseum, Watford, UK
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: ARCHIV PRODUKTION
477 7361 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 49 minutes
“The Creation” was the first oratorio to be published in two languages: the ‘original’ English version presented to Haydn in London by an unknown librettist, incorporating passages from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, and its subsequent German adaptation by Baron Gottfried van Swieten.
Paul McCreesh’s recording of “The Creation” is sung in English, using a new version of the text that has been “fine-tuned” by the conductor. In the booklet notes, McCreesh robustly defends the English version against its “considerably inferior” status, and justifies his own “complete and thorough revision”. He makes a good case; but the argument is largely academic, as the murky acoustic of the recording renders much of the choral text inaudible. The excellent soloists come across rather better, but those for whom English is not their first language (sopranos Sandrine Piau and Miah Persson) are unintelligible at times. After putting such emphasis on the importance of the vernacular, this is a major own-goal.
Unfortunately the disappointment doesn’t end there. McCreesh also attempts to recreate the epic size of the original Vienna performances, inspired by the vogue for large-scale Handel oratorios witnessed by Haydn during his visits to London in the 1790s. The bulked-out Gabrieli Consort thus includes triple woodwind to each part, additional brass and timpani, and masses of strings. They make a magnificent sound, but one which the engineers were evidently challenged in successfully capturing. The impressive tuttis are vividly conveyed, and the souped-up brass is phenomenal; but much of the time the distant recording, which places the listener towards the rear of a large, reverberant hall, is frustrating. A lot of inner detail is lost, especially in the muddy violins. The augmented woodwind, paradoxically, often sound thin or barely existent.
McCreesh seems to have decided that the best way to handle such potentially unwieldy forces is to keep them under tight rein with steady tempos. Slow doesn’t necessarily equate to bad, of course; but much of this ‘Creation’ feels earthbound, lacking the lively sparkle essential to this most ethereal of choral works.
It doesn’t have to be this way: Christopher Hogwood’s 1990 L’Oiseau Lyre recording with the Academy of Ancient Music employs similar large forces; but Hogwood achieves a vibrant spontaneity, helped by a crystal-clear recording that captures the special sense of occasion. Hogwood’s version is also sung in English, every word clear. If you’re after a large-scale period account in the vernacular, this is the one.
John Eliot Gardiner uses more modest forces in his sprightly also-Archiv version with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, dynamically bringing out the work’s drama. Even more thrilling, though, is the second of Karajan’s two DG recordings, taped ‘live’ at the 1982 Salzburg Festival. If you can adjust to the less-than-idiomatic style of the velvety Vienna Philharmonic strings, this is one of the most exciting of all ‘Creations’, the concert atmosphere inspiring exhilarating choral singing and a performance of smile-inducing joy – qualities which surface only rarely in McCreesh’s account.