The Creation

The Creation [sung in English in the Performing Edition with revised text by Paul McCreesh & Timothy Roberts]

Gabriel – Rosemary Joshua
Uriel – Mark Padmore
Raphael – Neal Davies
Adam – Peter Harvey
Eve – Sophie Bevan

Chetham’s Chamber Choir
Members of Wrocław Philharmonic Choir
Ruth Massey (alto soloist in final chorus)
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 18 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The libretto of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” has a fascinating story attached to it, one that continues even to this Proms performance.

The was the first choral work to be published in two languages – German, the language of the composer and the one that was his primary source of inspiration, and English, the language of the biblical book of Psalms and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” from which the text was compiled. Haydn felt “the Creation” would be best performed in the language of the audience, a point borne out by the appearance of French and Italian versions soon after the original publication.

The anonymous original poem “The Creation of the World”, now lost, was given to Haydn by Salomon (the impresario) when the composer was leaving England in 1795. This was passed to Baron Gottfried van Swieten who was responsible for fashioning the libretto in German for “Die Schöpfung”. Van Swieten was not a fluent speaker of English and his metrically matched English version has long been considered inferior to the German.

Paul McCreesh. Photograph: Sheila RockPaul McCreesh together with Timothy Roberts has adapted the English version so that it works better as a piece of prose; they have also rewritten the recitatives “as Haydn might have done had be been more familiar with the English language”. The effect is subtle but works well. McCreesh has kept phrases that are now synonymous with the English version (“With vertue clad”, “The flexible tiger” and “In rosy mantle”) but elsewhere the libretto reads as if it was originally written in English.

The combined forces of Chetham’s Chamber Choir and Members of Wrocław Philharmonic Choir meant that this was no watered-down performance. McCreesh points out that while many people associate ‘period’-performance-practice with smaller forces, this need not apply. Large choirs and orchestras were not unusual in Haydn’s time and when he first heard performances of Handel’s oratorios in the 1790s they were done with a large number of personnel. During his lifetime Haydn most frequently conducted ‘The Creation’ with many performers, so it is reasonable to assume that the forces employed for this Prom would not have been out of place.

This was a striking rendition that was let down only slightly by placing the trumpets high at the back of the performing area. This caused problems with balance and a lack of cohesion in the opening ‘Representation of Chaos’. Things settled quickly when the chorus entered with its ‘Despairing, cursing rage’ clear and well articulated, and prophetic of the performance thereafter. To end the oratorio’s Part One, ‘The Heavens are telling the glory of God’ benefited from editorial changes (“The wonder of his work displays the firmament” replaced by “The firmament displays the wonders of his works”); and the solo interjection, “Today that is coming speaks it the day, the night that is gone to following night” has been improved to “As day after day his power declares; and night after night his honour affirms.”

Rosemary Joshua. Photograph: Alvaro YanezThe ‘Fifth Day’ music that starts Part Two focuses the ears first upon the “nightingale’s delightful, liquid notes”, a softer and more subtle affair when described by wooden flutes, followed by the sumptuous tones of violas, cellos and double basses in Raphael’s recitative ‘And God created great whales’, which prompted a warm glow of satisfaction to pass around the audience. The contrabassoon and trombone blasts in Raphael’s aria ‘Now heaven in fullest glory shines’ were delightfully vulgar as the beasts trod heavily on the ground, made all the more noticeable by what appeared to be an unwound contrabassoon that towered above the orchestra black and sinister.

McCreesh appreciates this piece as a musician. Conducting from memory, his lucid direction of all the performers made for a superb journey from the primordial chaos to mankind’s jubilant arrival. There are so many good things to say about this performance that you should be hastened to the BBC iPlayer. Listen for influences of Mozart in the duet between Adam and Eve; for the wonderful pianissimo the chorus made at the beginning of Part Three (another good reason for employing a huge choir); and the delightful wind-playing in at the end of Part Two. All so good.

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