The Creation lifts the spirits on the fortieth anniversary of the Barbican Centre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn: Lucy Crowe (soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey), London Symphony Orchestra / Harry Christophers (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 3.3.2022. (MB)

Lucy Crowe, Harry Christophers and the LSO (c) Mark Allan

Haydn – The Creation (sung in English)

Forty years ago to the day, the Barbican Centre opened its doors to the concert-, theatre-, and exhibition-going public. The London Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director Claudio Abbado offered the Overture to Die Meistersinger, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (soloist: Vladimir Ashkenazy), Elgar’s Cello Concerto (soloist: Yo-Yo Ma), and Ravel’s La Valse. The current London Symphony Orchestra Music Director, Sir Simon Rattle, had chosen his longstanding favourite — and mine — Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, for this celebratory concert, but alas the aftermath of surgery meant that he ceded his place at a late stage to Harry Christophers. I say ‘alas’ for Rattle’s sake, since he would doubtless have loved to be there, but Christophers directed a collegial, eminently musical account of this most life-affirming of works, dedicated by the orchestra to the people of Ukraine. It will surely have lifted many spirits, at least in London, at so dark and terrifying a time.

The public premiere of The Creation boasted on orchestra of 120, though a chorus of only 60. Here, I think, the numbers were more or less reversed, the chorus somewhat more than the number of Haydn’s players, the orchestra not even a handful more than the number of Haydn’s singers. There is no need to get hung up on such things; it was a different occasion, in a different occasion, for different ears, and so on. But it was gratifying at least to have what would once have been a standard Haydn-Mozart string section (, perhaps increased for a large-scale work such as this, rather than something more parsimonious. There was plenty of mystery and potentiality to the ‘Representation of Chaos’, that extraordinary clarinet solo and woodwind writing more generally relished to the full, the pathos of the final descending flute line pointing to ethical and aesthetic imperatives to create.

The simple, straightforward effectiveness of ‘and there was Light!’, Haydn’s greatest coup de théâtre, was heightened by the committed weight and clarity of the London Symphony Chorus, here as elsewhere on typically excellent form. For if there were times when I missed the sheer variety of scale (with no larger orchestra) the late Sir Colin Davis brought to this work, there were exceptions, especially on the choral side, the choral section ‘And to the ethereal vaults resound’ a little later on a case in point. There was, moreover, a fine edge, rhythmic and harmonic, to the orchestral playing for ‘endless night’ when, a little before, Uriel told of Hell’s spirits’ fate. The combination of orchestra and chorus was throughout excellent, the contrapuntal clarity of ‘The heavens are telling’ at times revelatory. Haydn’s pictorial instrumental imagery was given its delightful due throughout.

The LSO and London Symphony Chorus at the Barbican (c) Mark Allan

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his experience in such repertoire, Christophers showed himself particularly alert to Haydn’s neo-Handelian turns, for instance in Raphael’s ‘Rolling in foaming billows’. A wonderful brace of oboes (Olivier Stankewicz and Rosie Jenkins) had me think of Bach, though I think that was more coincidence than direct influence. Here and elsewhere, Roderick Williams was a vivid, highly engaging narrator. Lucy Crowe was more inclined to ornament, sometimes further than one might expect, yet always with sound, stylish reason. Her despatch of Haydn’s coloratura, for instance in ‘With verdure clad’, spun from finest Egyptian cotton, was matched by beautifully centred intonation (and indeed by choral agility in ‘Awake the harp, the lyre awake!’) Her aria, ‘On mighty pens uplifted’ was simply outstanding, ‘cooing’ first coy, then ornamented and joined by LSO woodwind in a flourish of birdsong to have Messiaen eat his heart out. Andrew Staples also offered a communicative, sincere performance, very much in the ‘English tenor’ tradition.

When all three soloists came together, with or without chorus, they complemented each other well — and, crucially, listened to one another and to their fellow musicians, unselfishly moderated by Christophers as conductor. The trio and chorus ‘Most beautiful appear … The Lord is great’ offered a case in point, though I wondered whether its choral close were just a little too bonny and blithe, lacking in the grandeur both Haydn and Handel deserve yet today all too rarely receive. Similarly, the tempo of the ‘Hymn’ in Part Three suggested a brisk jog around the Garden of Eden rather than the anticipated leisurely stroll. Those three flutes, though, who announced Uriel’s preceding accompagnato, made it abundantly clear why no one would ever wish to leave. Williams and Crowe offered an excellent balance between the knowing and the innocent as Adam and Eve.

Hearing the original English of the bilingual libretto by Gottfried van Swieten sometimes brought me, accustomed to hearing the work in German, a few surprises. (I know the English text well, yet I do not think I have ever heard it performed in concert.) Not only were there obvious differences in phrasing, but shifts in practical meaning too, for instance when ‘bespeak’ (Uriel’s aria, No.24) rather than ‘ihm Liebe’ was repeated. There was no denying, though, the sheer goodness of this work, something we need just as strongly as the war-torn Europe for which it was composed. Let us allow Haydn the last word. In 1801, a Bohemian schoolteacher, Charles Ockl, wrote to him, requesting support after unexpected opposition from the Prague consistory to Ockl’s plans to perform The Creation in church. Haydn replied:

it was with considerable astonishment that I read of the[se] curious happenings, which … considering the age in which we live, reflect but little credit on the intelligence and emotions of those responsible.

The story of the Creation has always been regarded as most sublime, and as one which inspires the utmost awe in mankind. To accompany this great occurrence with suitable music could certainly produce no other effect than to heighten these sacred emotions in the heart of the listener, and to put him in a frame of mind in which he is most susceptible to the kindness and omnipotence of the Creator. – And this exultation of the most sacred emotions is supposed to constitute desecration of a church?

… it is not unlikely that the listeners went away from my Oratorio with their hearts far more uplifted than after hearing … sermons. No church has ever been desecrated by my Creation; on the contrary: the adoration and worship of the Creator, which it inspires, can be more ardently and intimately felt by playing it in such a sacred edifice.

Perhaps we can say something similar today for the Barbican and other concert halls. In any case, happy fortieth birthday.

Mark Berry

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