Richard Egarr Fails to Do Justice to Haydn

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, The Creation: Marlis Petersen (soprano), Sally Dodds (mezzo-soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey), London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Egarr (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 12.1.2014 (MB)

It is not an enviable task, to take over from the late Sir Colin Davis in almost any repertoire, let alone in Haydn. That said, the failings of Richard Egarr in this performance cannot simply be attributed to invidious comparisons. His perverse insistence that the LSO, by general consent London’s finest orchestra, play for much of the time as if it were some rough-and-ready pseudo-‘period’ band was bad enough. If you want a period orchestra, then go ahead and employ one, but why on earth belittle a modern orchestra in such fashion? Even if we leave that aside, Egarr’s manifest difficulty in maintaining a dual role as harpsichordist and conductor told of ambition exceeding competence. Continuo playing veered between the nondescript and the inappropriate, whilst there was great palaver to be had each time he switched one role for the other: a stool to be moved, arms flailing all over the place, and, oddest of all, a practice of conducting with the left hand whilst doodling at the keyboard with the right. Surely if a continuo instrument is to be employed at all in combination with the orchestra – it is unnecessary in Haydn – then the part should be founded upon a solid bass line. Tempi were often not only too fast, but rigidly driven to the point of caricature, a glaring exception being the weirdly distended recitative between Adam and Eve, a point at which the harpsichord became unduly distracting too.

It was, then, a tribute to the LSO, the London Symphony Chorus, and at least to Gerald Finley, that there remained a good deal in isolation to savour from this performance of Haydn’s late masterpiece. The ‘Representation of Chaos’ was disappointing: a truly dispiriting thing to have to write. Not only was this astonishing movement taken with a swiftness that verged upon the absurd; more damaging still, peculiarities of scoring and rhythm were crudely underlined, rather than permitting Haydn’s genius to speak for itself. (Such would prove a recurring problem, not least when the composer was at his most pictorial.) Here, and throughout the work, Egarr seemed incapable of thinking, let alone communicating, with the symphonic breadth that Haydn requires: Fernhören does not seem to be in his vocabulary. The arrival of ‘Light’ was loud rather than grand. Here, as elsewhere, memories of Davis, whether in performance or on record, and of course, Karajan, died hard. Choral singing was in itself of a typically high standard: real drama was imparted to the episode of the fallen angels. But one felt a certain lack of interest on the conductor’s part in the text: especially odd, given Egarr’s opting for the English version.

Moreover, despite the aforementioned tendency to crude exaggeration of detail, when it came to what Nicholas Temperley called ‘the most extraordinary tonal surprise in the whole work – perhaps in all classical music,’ the ‘In native worth’ modulation to A-flat major, it passed for relatively little. Pleasant rather than epiphanic, God’s breath was reduced to an everyday occurrence. A great orchestra can rarely be kept down entirely. For instance, the darkness of the lower strings in Raphael’s Fifth day accompagnato was breathtaking; too often, however, violins were compelled severely to ration vibrato, sounding grey and thin through no fault of their own. (Contrast the variegated beauty of their sound on Davis’s LSO Live recording!) Trombones sounded splendid as they greeted the ‘tawny lion’. The opening of the Third Part, three flutes and all, sounded paradisiacal indeed, though the ensuing Hymn was almost ruined by the ragged, rasping race to the finish imposed upon it by the conductor. As for the martial quality of the following duet, it is difficult to imagine the music sounding less erotic. Again, I could not help but wonder whether Egarr had taken any notice of the libretto.

Finley excelled from his first recitative onwards, even if the brass section was forced to adopt a rasping sound quite at odds with its typical excellence. He offered subtlety of shading and of verbal response that was generally lacking elsewhere. He even almost made one forget the strangeness of some of Gottfried van Swieten’s adapted text – except when he, alas, opted for over-pictorial emphasis on the Sixth Day. Marlis Petersen had her moments, and her English was excellent, but she proved surprisingly shrill at times. Jeremy Ovenden’s light English tenor was not to my taste; I found myself hearing Janowitz and Wunderlich in my mind’s ear. Not to mention an imaginary conflation of the best of the rest from Davis and Karajan…

Mark Berry