United Kingdom Haydn: Lydia Teuscher (soprano); Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass-baritone); CBSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 21.9.2017. (JQ)
Haydn – The Creation
Creation is a much-loved staple of the choral/orchestral repertoire – and rightly so. It came as little surprise, therefore, to read in the programme that as early as 1922, two years after what was then the City of Birmingham Orchestra was founded, it performed Haydn’s great masterpiece for the first time. On that occasion, the Choir of Wolverhampton Musical Society came to Birmingham Town Hall to do the choral honours because that was long before the orchestra had its own partner chorus. The CBSO Chorus, founded in 1973 and still proudly boasting a few founder members, I believe, sang it the year after their foundation, under the baton of the late Louis Frémaux. They went on to perform it with Simon Rattle and to make with him a very fine recording of it in 1990; that recording is still in the catalogue and is very well worth hearing. The CBSO Chorus was on duty tonight and in splendid form.
As soon as the CBSO’s 2017/18 season was announced this was a “must attend” event for me. Creation is one of my favourite choral works, whether to hear or to sing. More than that, though, I was very keen to hear what Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla would make of it. She comes from an active singing tradition in her own family and I recall that on her appointment to the CBSO she made a point of saying how much she was looking forward to working with the orchestra’s associated choruses. This vernally fresh work with its marvellously inventive orchestral score seemed tailor-made for her.
I was delighted to see that she had decided to divide the violins left and right. I can’t understand why this wouldn’t be the norm for any performance of a work like this, whether by ‘period’ or modern instrumental forces. Time and again the rewards of this decision were obvious – a choice example came in the orchestral opening to ‘Rolling in foaming billows’. The remainder of the string layout was interesting. The cellos were to the conductor’s left, between the first violins and the violas. The double basses were placed behind the cellos with the brass and timpani on the opposite side of the platform. “Old-style” kettle drums, played with hard sticks were used and I think I’m correct in saying that natural trumpets were deployed. With string vibrato very restrained this was a performance that took period style sensibly but not slavishly into account.
I thought the orchestral playing was very fine throughout the evening. At all times, the players were alert and highly responsive to their conductor’s animated direction. Haydn’s woodwind writing is delectable and the CBSO players relished it all. There were particularly fine contributions from principal flute, Marie-Christine Zupancic and principal clarinet, Oliver Janes (both were delightful in ‘On mighty pens’) and from the principal oboist, Rainer Gibbons. Haydn’s orchestral writing was uniquely colourful and inventive in Creation – I’m tempted to say it’s his greatest achievement of orchestration – and the orchestra’s playing tonight allowed us to revel in the composer’s fertile imagination.
The three soloists all acquitted themselves well. Mathew Brook was outstanding. His firm, well-focused voice was ideally suited to the music and his diction was impeccable. In Parts I and II he really told his portions of the story vividly, characterising the music in a most engaging way. The characterful aspect of his singing reached its zenith in ‘Straight opening her fertile womb’; here he illustrated the creation of various beasts most entertainingly and in a way that clearly amused the audience even if, for my taste, he was slightly over the top when he came to depict the worm. I wondered if he would be as good in the role of Adam in Part III since this requires a somewhat different approach but I need not have worried; Brook was manly and suave
His two colleagues, good though they were, couldn’t match Brook’s clarity of diction. I know the words to Creation pretty well but there were times when I found both Lydia Teuscher and Thomas Hobbs less than ideally distinct. That said, both singers offered much to enjoy. Miss Teuscher was charming in ‘In verdure clad’, showing agility in the decorations. Her bright tone was well suited to the eager, rapturous ‘On mighty pens’ where her mini-cadenzas were completely winning. In Part III she was appealing in the role of Eve. Thomas Hobbs has a voice that is essentially light and clear in timbre and that’s well suited to this work. I thought he made a fine job of ‘In splendour bright’ which requires great control and significant contrast from the singer; we got all that. His easy delivery of ‘In native worth’ was admirable’ and he painted the scene that is depicted in ‘In rosy mantle’ most imaginatively.
The CBSO Chorus was on tremendous form. They have the luxury of being prepared by Simon Halsey, one of the foremost choral trainers in the land, and, my goodness, it showed. The choruses really are splendid in this work: Haydn took note of Handel’s achievements in choral writing and then went up a notch or two. ‘Awake the harp’ was terrific; the start was vital and the fugue that followed was light on its feet and clear. ‘The heavens are telling’ was, if anything, even better, the chorus strongly animated by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s animated direction. At the close of the sixth day, with the work of creation completed, the great chorus ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ was made into a splendid celebration by the CBSO Chorus. But this was no mere loud festivity – as it often is; here, as elsewhere in the performance, the choir paid great attention to the details of dynamic contrast and this, allied to crisp, energised singing made the music really come alive.
Presiding over all this was Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. I’ve been greatly impressed on the occasions I’ve seen her conduct previously. I have to confess, though, that prior to the concert a slight nagging doubt was in my mind. Just over a year ago I’d seen her conduct a Mozart overture and felt it was a little hard driven (review). Then my colleague, Alan Sanders noted a tendency to rush fences in her Beethoven performances with the CBSO at this year’s Proms (review). Might she adopt an over-enthusiastic approach to Haydn? Happily, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. It’s true that there were one or two occasions when the pacing seemed a touch impetuous but the impetuosity – if such it was – counted for little when set against the zest and freshness of her conducing. Only once did I part company with her. The orchestral introduction to ‘In splendour bright’ was too fast. This should be a passage of burgeoning grandeur and that quality was missed. Set against that isolated instance, however, was the consistent vivacity of her interpretation. The zestful introduction to ‘Now vanish before the holy beams’, the accents thrillingly used to impel the music forward, was an early example of what lay in store. Time and again her gestures picked up points of detail in the score which her players then brought out beautifully. Her conducting radiated enjoyment in the music and the way in which she directed the choir clearly galvanised them. As I remarked to my guest in the interval – taken sensibly midway through Part II – we could only see her back but you just knew that she was smiling a lot. Nor was the performance all about energy; there was an abundance of sensitivity as well. The delicacy of the orchestral introduction to ‘In rosy mantle’ gave great pleasure and later in Part III she judged the duet between Adam and Eve to perfection: the ‘Graceful consort’ episode was affectionately elegant while the subsequent quick section was effervescent.
This was a marvellously enjoyable evening. Haydn’s gloriously inventive music was brought vividly to life by singers, players and a conductor who were all on top of their respective games. After the joyful final chorus, the appropriate verdict on this performance could only be: ‘Achieved is the glorious work’. The CBSO’s 2017/18 season has been launched in suitably optimistic style.