The Barbican bore witness to the beginning of everything.
The creation story, as told in Genesis (and embellished by Milton in Paradise Lost) is a gift to any composer, and invites a work laden with musical word-painting to depict sunrise, moonlight, storms, the characteristics of a host of creatures, the innocent calm of early Eden, and, of course, the ‘big bang’ moment itself. Haydn, being, arguably, the most gifted orchestrator of his age, rose to the challenge with brilliance in his oratorio The Creation, filling it with contrabassoon passages for ‘heavy beasts’, woodwinds to imitate birds, a lush horn duet to announce Adam and Eve’s pairing, and, of course, a triumphant blare of brass for ‘and there was light!‘. After centuries of being a staple of amateur choral societies, and receiving some uninspiring performances, the oratorio has perhaps become a little jaded; in recent years, though, it has been adopted by the ‘historically informed performance’ movement, and given a fresh sound through the gnarlier timbres of original instruments.
One might expect, then, that a performance on modern instruments would offer little in the way of excitement, but the London Symphony Orchestra under Harry Christophers on Sunday evening (a repeat of Thursday’s concert) disproved this theory entirely. There was nothing anodyne about this account; the LSO players (doubtless aided by Christophers’ long experience in the world of Early Music) coaxed some gloriously raw textures from their contemporary instruments. The opening ‘Representation of Chaos’ was full of dynamic contrast from almost hesitant strings, the random charm of a clarinet passage and some gutsy blare from the brass. The orchestra throughout the work gave us a complete 18th century sound world, demonstrating Haydn’s playfulness to the max: a consummate understanding of ‘surprise’ dynamic; a twinkle from the fortepiano on ‘harps’; some furious string bowing for the storms; the stillest playing for moonrise, a precisely observed pastiche flute pastoral for the cattle, and the warmest low strings for ‘Be fruitful’.
“Haydn, being, arguably, the most gifted orchestrator of his age, rose to the challenge with brilliance in his oratorio The Creation…”
The three soloists (Lucy Crowe, Andrew Staples and Roderick Williams) answered the orchestral challenge with equal panache, all three voices bringing character and dazzle to the performance. Crowe’s slightly husky lower register, combined with the sweetest of upper stave tones made for contrast between Gabriel and Eve; Staples’ silvery but incisive tenor gave us gentle lilt (‘In rosy mantle’) and authoritative narration (’In splendour bright’) by turns. Williams, as always, brought a flawless richness to both Raphael and Adam (surprising those used to his baritone register with a solid bottom D for ‘worm’); the blend achieved in the duets and trios further demonstrated the winning combination of these voices. The communication with the audience through stance and gesture was excellent, and all three milked their roles for character, enjoying the opportunities for decoration that Haydn throws their way. Crowe, in particular, absolutely revelled in ‘cooing’, a camply aspirated ‘exhhhhale’, and a sly eye-roll at ‘from obedience grows my pride’. Staples’ prim lowering of his music stand on his final admonishment to Adam and Eve spoke volumes about the problems to come.
The London Symphony Chorus were positioned in the front row of the stalls, and here was perhaps the only flaw in the performance. The immediacy of a very large chorus practically on the audience’s laps led to a lack of homogeneity in the choral sound in places. Their dynamic was soft when it was absolutely demanded (‘And the Spirit of God’), but one felt that the dynamic subtleties that would have augmented the performance were occasionally absent. It is unusual for a chorus to be so close, and adapting the choral delivery would have presented understandable challenges. Perhaps a small chorus or a judicious use of semi-chorus in places might have solved this.