Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge – Haydn’s The Creation

The Creation – Anonymous English text, after the Book of Genesis, the Psalms and Milton’s Paradise Lost [sung in English]

Rebecca Evans (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor) & Neal Davies (bass-baritone)

The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge

Britten Sinfonia
Andrew Nethsingha

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 18 February, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square

“Quincentenary” is a grand word and a grander landmark. Even in a country as steeped in history as Great Britain, there are few establishments venerable enough to celebrate its half-millennium. St John’s College, Cambridge, though, is pure pedigree Tudor. For the last fifty of its 500 years the college has won worldwide renown through its countless broadcasts and recordings. During George Guest’s epic tenure as Director of Music (1951-91) the choir became known for its blend of a ‘continental’ treble sound and a notably rich male-voice timbre, thereby earning itself a special place within the English choral tradition – a pre-eminence it enjoys to this day. Among the choir’s early recording successes was a fine series of Haydn masses that have long been cornerstones of Decca’s catalogue; so to mark the quincentenary with logic as well as style, Guest’s successor-but-two, Andrew Nethsingha, turned to this talisman-composer for a celebratory performance of “The Creation”.

The performance was a strong one, underpinned by Nethsingha’s joyous tempos and by some refined playing from Britten Sinfonia in quasi-original-practice mode (although Maggie Cole’s discreet fortepiano was the only ‘period’ instrument in its ranks). All three soloists were of the first rank: Allan Clayton was in fervent voice as Uriel, while great Wales was represented by Rebecca Evans and Neal Davies in strongly differentiated guises, first as Gabriel and Raphael, then as Eve and Adam. Evans was guilty of excessive scooping at the start of several phrases; but her tone ravished the ear and her birdsong effect on “And cooing calls the tender dove his mate” was wittily charming. Davies, meanwhile, communicated like a minstrel storyteller throughout his recitatives and arias, and by playing it dead straight on “Cheerful, roaring stands the tawny lion” he had the audience in his pocket.

The evening’s disappointment, such as it was, concerned the quincentennial choir itself. The choral sound had a fresh-toned sparkle, classical without a hint of the oratorio school of chorusing; but the singers’ placement at the very rear of the platform, beyond even the farthest pair of those fine Corinthian columns, prevented their voices from cutting through the orchestral forces, modest though these were. Nethsingha, clearly conscious of the imbalance, had attempted to rectify matters by adding four female supernumeraries to his vocal mix; but this only served to muddy the boys’ exceptional treble character. As “The Creation” is not a particularly chorus-heavy work (making it a questionable choice of repertoire to mark such an important anniversary), when the great choruses do occur they need to resound with bell-like clarity. The heavens should have been refulgent in telling the glory of God; but, in St John’s, although the spirit was manifestly willing, the flesh was that little bit too weak.

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