The Creation [sung in English]
Gabriel Sandrine Piau
Uriel Mark Padmore
Raphael Neal Davies
Eve Miah Persson
Adam Peter Harvey
Chethams Chamber Choir
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 26 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort are celebrating their 25th-anniversary and, following workshops in Manchester, this performance of Haydn’s “The Creation” was given at the Barbican Hall as part of the “Great Performers” series to start the Gabrieli Consort’s birthday season off, to be followed by a recording for Deutsche Grammophon.
Rather confusingly, the Barbican brochure and website informed interested parties that “The Creation” would be sung in English, whereas the Gabrieli website reported that Paul McCreesh would replicate performances that Haydn himself conducted in Vienna, where the assumption must be – however much Haydn intended the work as bilingual – that it was performed in Baron von Swieten’s German text.
Regrettably the programme note didn’t help in clarifying the matter of Haydn’s performing preferences, though I can report that both websites were correct. “The Creation” was sung in English – in Paul McCreesh and Timothy Roberts’s new performing edition, attempting to iron out a few of the oddities of an original, lost, English text that von Swieten translated into German for Haydn to set and then, rather badly, re-translated back into English for the bilingual edition – and was, as advertised, performed by similarly huge forces to those used by Haydn.
The Gabrieli Consort was joined by the Chetham’s School of Music Chamber Choir (hence the workshops in Manchester) and the Players fielded not one orchestra, but three – filling the platform with sets of winds flat against the sides, in addition to those immediately in front of the choir, with a mixture of strings occupying centre-ground. The continuo – with a fortepiano standing proud – acted a buffer between the main orchestra and the orchestra on the right (as you look at the platform), and the ensemble was topped by two sets of timpani on either side.
H. C. Robbins Landon, in the antepenultimate volume of his “Haydn Chronicle and Works” (Haydn: The Years of The Creation; Thames & Hudson, 1977 rev. 1994, pp 445-458) – describes the first public performance at the Burgtheater on 19 March 1799 from contemporary sources, which estimated a performing group of about 400; though his description of the serried ranks of players – trumpets and timpani at the highest level – did not equate to McCreesh’s layout. I cheekily wondered whether Haydn had beaten Stockhausen to the possibilities of three orchestras 150 years before Gruppen, especially as many would describe the later work as ‘chaos’, by which the opening of Haydn’s oratorio is ‘represented’. And remember, Stockhausen also went on to fixate for seven operas on “Licht” (Light) that afforded Haydn one of his most famous ‘Creation’ choruses.
There was no doubting the grand noise all this made, and I suspect future performances of “The Creation” are going to sound a little undernourished after McCreesh’s vibrant reconstruction act. He conducted it at a pace, playing to the work’s drama rather than to its lyrical or spiritual nature and drew great choral singing from his joint choirs. Some of them have had a very busy time of late: no fewer than five of the Gabrieli Consort had sung as members of Emmanuelle Haïm’s Choeur du Concert d’Astrée in Handel’s “Theodora” both at the Barbican and Théâtre de Champs Elysées the week before.
There was luxury casting too in that Gabriel and Raphael did not, in the third part, also inhabit the roles of Eve and Adam, so here – in addition to Sandrine Piau and Neal Davies, Miah Persson (such a delectable Fiordiligi in Nicholas Hytner’s Glyndebourne production of “Così fan tutte” earlier this year) and Peter Harvey made late entrances to assume the roles of the first couple, with Mark Padmore’s ringing tenor tones as Uriel common to the oratorio’s three parts.
McCreesh conducted “The Creation” without an interval, although applause at the end of each part and a withdrawal from and re-entry to the platform allowed breath. Maybe the haste contributed to some physical chaos in the very opening, with stray solo strings and a rather shocking pianoforte note coming out of nowhere (certainly not from the score) momentarily rocked the boat. Such things will be ironed out in the recording process, and such infelicities did not mar the performance as a whole.
Whether one agrees with David Wyn Jones’s opening gambit in his note (“Nobody would argue with the view that The Creation is Haydn’s single greatest work” – I think I might do just that!), this was a vibrant, engaging performance that was deservedly greeted with acclamation from a full house. I suspect that John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of “The Seasons” next year (7 March) will be similarly supported, while the Gabrieli Consort’s next London performance is at Christ Church Spitalfields on 22 November, mixing Monteverdi and Stravinsky.