United Kingdom Haydn: Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Graham Neal (tenor), Giles Underwood, (bass), Swansea Bach Choir, Musica Poetica London / Greg Hallam (conductor), St Mary’s Church, Swansea, 19.3.2016. (NR)
Haydn: The Creation
This concert formed part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Swansea Bach Choir, which for many years, first under the direction of John Hugh Thomas and more recently Greg Hallam, has been one of the outstanding musical institutions in South Wales, a by-word for high quality singing and imaginative programming.
For this occasion, though, it was back to basics with Haydn’s Creation, assisted by Musica Poetica London (a bright young period-instrument group) and three excellent soloists, of whom the renowned Elin Manahan Thomas is herself an alumna of the Choir. It was good to hear the work performed in chamber dimensions, with a single trumpet and horn giving sharpness and brightness to the climactic moments, and there was some beautiful ensemble playing in the quieter passages of Part Three, set in Eden before the Fall, but with one or two harmonic touches suggesting the Fall is not far off.
While the music is of course superbly and intricately crafted, the familiar English libretto is anything but, full of perverse manglings of the language which put one in mind of some of the dreadful hack verses Purcell had to put up with a hundred years earlier. This performance used the much-revised text by Paul McCreesh, which does away with most of the worst excesses (although some favourites survive, the rivers which ‘flow in serpent error’ for instance). In ‘The heavens are telling’, McCreesh up-ends the original inversion, ‘the wonder of his work displays the firmament’, to give ‘the firmament displays the wonder of his work’: it makes the meaning a lot clearer, but also places a curious and rather startling new accentuation on the long note in the middle, slightly uncomfortable for the choir, I imagine, and hard to get used to.
The choral singing was however always crisp and lively, kept moving at a fair lick by Greg Hallam; if anything, and if it doesn’t sound too odd to say so, the sound was rather pleasantly underpowered. The three soloists sang even their most florid passages with calm authority and control, nothing showy or disrespectful, and Giles Underwood provided one highlight with his perfect landing on the low, almost oktavist note at the end of a line hard to articulate with a straight face, ‘in long dimension creeps with sinuous trace the worm’.