United States Mostly Mozart Festival, Finale: Haydn, The Creation, Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (director), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor), Sarah Tynan (soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor), John Relyea (bass), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 21.8.2015 (SSM)
We often think of Joseph Haydn as a dilettante, a composer sweet enough to bear the appellation “Papa,” and much of his music does reinforce this image. There are, of course, exceptions: those symphonies written during the Sturm und Drang period (1760 – 1780), often easily spotted by titles such as Lamentatione, Trauer or La Passione; the use of minor keys (in only 11 symphonies out of 104); or his Masses and his one-of-a-kind “Seven Last Words of Jesus at the Cross.” But he was, after all, an employee at the service of royalty (granted, enlightened royalty), and he was expected to write music of a kind. He was no Beethoven or Mozart, neither of whom would have tolerated being treated as a servant, consigned, as it were, to eating with the staff.
Even after leaving the Esterhazy estate for London, where he was afforded a compositional carte blanche from his numerous London admirers and patrons, he remained conservative, never progressing as far as he might have in his final symphonies. As popular as these works are, they suffer from a rigidity and a simplicity that was meant to please rather than to enlighten. Few of his operas are familiar, for good reason; Beethoven knew opera was not his strength and wrote only one, but Haydn produced over a dozen. When Haydn did make small leaps into the unknown, it was often under the influence of another composer or style. This can be seen in the stylistic changes he made to his symphonies during the Sturm und Drang period and in the quartets influenced by Mozart. It is hard not to see the influence of Handel in Haydn’s oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. Handel had written many sacred oratorios, based on biblical stories of Deborah, Saul and Theodora, before tackling “The Messiah,” but Haydn went straight to the top of the pile with the story of the Creation.
The overture, entitled “The Representation of Chaos,” has its share of the chaotic, with dissonance most prominently heard from the brass. The score also calls for two clarinets; although the clarinet had been around for some time, it had not been used prominently in orchestral works of the period. Here Haydn uses them for their timbre. When the clarinet appears, as it does in a glissando during the overture, it feels anachronistic. Langrée used all the given resources to the full. The overture was performed at a considerable clip, and the fortes were appropriately forceful. It was clear this was not going to be a tempered performance, as several others that I’ve seen have been. Langrée made no attempt to hide dissonances, treated in some productions as if they were mistakes. Somehow everything cohered, being both precise and clean, which is not easy to accomplish in a work that is meant to be the essence of the chaotic.
Yet as the oratorio continued, the whole began to seem as if were going to be less than its parts. From movement to movement, individual solos, choruses and recitatives were more than technically correct, but lacked distinctiveness. Yes, every member excelled, with particular praise due to the male soloists who replaced the originally announced singers, but there was an overall lack of variety. When a conductor has already brought us to pseudo-climaxes several times, there are not many places he can go at the close of a section or at the finale. There were times when the music had such a sense of finality that one felt the oratorio must be over.
A specific example was the chorus and soloists together singing a text that clearly was meant to refer back to Handel’s Messiah: “The lord is great and great his might. The glory lasts for ever and for evermore.” The expected effect would have been more potent had some of the earlier choruses been more tempered. Certainly we don’t want to go back to an old-world plodding performance à la Handel oratorios of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the conductor’s job is to understand a work’s construction and overall effect. Large works, whether a Passion by Bach or a symphony by Mahler, don’t stand up when the conductor does not have a vision of the whole and focuses only on the parts.
The instrumentalists and vocal soloists excelled in every way. They were clear and fluent, able to hold their own amid the full volume of the orchestra. How lucky it was to have two of the three soloists replaced by singers who never once sounded unprepared. These vocalists were appearing at the Mostly Mozart Festival for the first time, and one must give credit to Langrée who kept everything moving. Sarah Tynan’s voice soared and shone through the density of the music, carrying even the highest notes clearly to the rafters.
Alto Erin Kemp appeared near the end in what must be the shortest soloist role in music, with only a half dozen measures to deliver during the final vocal tutti ̶ and she did them very nicely.