United Kingdom Haydn, The Creation: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, Stephen Layton (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 8.5.2015. (PCG)
Haydn’s oratorio The Creation,presented here as the finale to the brief BBC season on the subject, was a work of his old age written after he had emerged onto the European stage as a figure of genius who was able to have his music performed on the grandest scale. He had essayed the oratorio form once before, but his Return of Tobia – good in parts although dramatically diffuse – lacked the sheer scale of this phantasmagorical combination of Milton’s Paradise Lost with the Book of Genesis. Indeed the opening ten minutes of the work have a startling sense of overwhelming grandeur that was not to be heard in German music again until the finale of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony a quarter of a century later. The remainder of the score does not live up to that opening – how could it? – but it has plenty of vigour and enthusiasm as well as many subtle touches and (as so often with Haydn) a delightfully offhand sense of humour, which serve to retain the listener’s interest throughout. Haydn, doubtless with an eye on the commercial possibilities of the English oratorio market, had the score published with a parallel texts in German and English; here Haydn’s English version was employed, to the advantage of immediate comprehensibility even when the composer’s command of the language is not of the most idiomatic. It was here subjected to some unacknowledged amendment to that given in the Novello vocal score, which was intermittently successful in removing some of the most tortuous phrases.
The opening of the work makes an interesting contrast with Rebel’s Les elements (given in the last concert in this BBC series) in its “representation of Chaos” – lacking the earlier work’s sheer audacity, but making up for that in its sense of pointless meandering and unmotivated contrasts. There has been a fashion in recent years to play this section as far as possible in a purely classical style, relying on the sense of contrast with normal period practice to speak for itself; but the music works even better when it is delivered for all it is worth, providing afresh the sense of shock that it must have engendered in its first audiences (and, we are told, in the composer himself). In this performance Layton gave its drama in the fullest degree, and although his use of almost chamber-like forces (only two double-basses) may have threatened to sound under-powered there was plenty of bite to the orchestral string tone which was never overwhelmed by the large choral tone or the characterful wind. Only once, during the ‘love duet’ in the Garden of Eden towards the end, might one have welcomed more warmth from the violins – Haydn himself employed 180 performers for the public première of the work in Vienna, which had been inspired in turn by the large-scale performances of Handel which he had encountered in London.
But the decision to range the chorus across the back of the stage rather than elevated above it paid handsome dividends both in terms of balance and in avoiding the difficulties sometimes observed in this hall of performers not being able to clearly hear one another. And the soloists constituted an exceptionally well-match team, blending well in trio as well as separately. Matthew Brook launched the opening recitative with a beautifully withdrawn tone which gripped the listener (although not, unfortunately some cloth-eared coughers) and elicited laughter from the audience during his descriptions of the various animals where Haydn really lets his sense of humour off the leash. His lowest notes could have been more solid, but as Adam he ranged into the upper register with ease with a fine sense of lyricism. Elizabeth Watts soared up to high C when required, and there was plenty of warmth in her tone in the lower register; and she decorated her lines with delicacy and taste. Best of all was Allan Clayton, a tenor with no trace of the ‘English cathedral’ tradition, but a full-voiced Mozartian voice with a solid metal centre. Where Haydn (momentarily forgetting himself) wrote a fourth solo part in the final chorus, Olivia Gomez stepped up from the ranks of the chorus ad delivered theher five bars allocated to her by the composer without seeming in the least overshadowed by her colleagues.
In a season where audience attendance at concerts in this venue has been patchy, it was a pleasure to note that the stalls at any rate were full for this performance. Their loudest applause at the end however was reserved for the orchestra, which although fully justified seemed unfair to the others involved. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on the BBC i-player for the next thirty days. It would well repay a further listen.
Paul Corfield Godfrey