Classical and Opera Reviews

Haydn: The Creation @ St John’s Smith Square, London

28 March 2019


Joanna Tomlinson

Joanna Tomlinson

Haydn’s works, these days, gain a huge amount from performances by original-instrument ensembles, who add excitement and timbral colour to sometimes rather formulaic music through the employment of edgy-sounding gut strings, raw brass and hard-stick timps; his 1799 oratorio The Creation benefits the most from such treatment, as its orchestral word-painting becomes even more textured. And so it was on Thursday as the London Baroque Sinfonia under the elegant and studied control of Joanna Tomlinson produced some delicious effects that included not only the usual contra-bassoon’s fruity bellow for ‘heavy beasts’, but some hefty timpani thumps to point up thunderstorms, charmingly woody clarinet bubbles in the pastoral sections, some fine chirping from flutes in On mighty pens and deft horn work throughout, providing exciting little uplifts within the orchestral texture. The strings, too, were well co-ordinated, and varied their timbre to produce discomforting thinness for the opening representation of chaos, sprightly dancing for the more joyful arias, and solid support for the choral movements. Ian Tindale’s playful fortepiano continuo provided delight throughout.

The soloists were a well-matched trio. The tenor (as Uriel) has only one aria (In native worth) in which he can shine, but Greg Tassell handled this with aplomb and a clear tone, although with less engagement than the other two soloists. This slightly distanced approach, however, worked well for his narrative passages, which were delivered with the clipped conciseness that befits an archangel who receives scant scriptural description. The bass James Oldfield gave us a slightly hoarse ‘darkness upon the face of the deep’, but soon warmed, such that he brought a solid command to the roles of Raphael and Adam, deploying rich tones and a nice top edge to Rolling in foaming billows, and a warmth to his later duets with Eve; his neighing and bleating in Strait opening complemented the orchestra’s own animal impressions with well-judged wit. What can one say about the soprano Miriam Allan except that ‘every Haydn should have one’? Clearly enjoying all her numbers, she channelled an intelligent understanding of the musical idiom throughout – the very definition of unconscious competence. Every note was crafted for attack, dynamic change, timbre and ornament, such that her silvery top notes tinkled above the chorus in The marv’lous work, a summery verdant landscape was summoned in With verdure clad and Eve’s soon-to-be-shattered loving innocence came shining through in the warm rendering of O thou, for whom I am!

The Whitehall Choir sang in ‘scrambled’ formation (that is, not in blocks of voice parts). It’s a good rehearsal technique that teaches listening and blend, but it needs to be used carefully for performance, and a work that contains a considerable amount of drama and a deal of counterpoint, is possibly not the best deployment opportunity. Sadly, entries that should have been sharp and precise were often flabby and underpowered (the famous The heavens are telling, for example, began with precious little ‘oomph’, and contained almost no dynamic contrast, rumbling along at a sort of muffled forte throughout). The piece needs the fireworks one gets from hearing fugal entries spatially separated (particularly, for example, the angular subject of ‘for he both heaven and earth’), and the staggered entries suffered from a lack of confident voice sections supporting themselves on the attacks of these; the dramatic buzz that the orchestra and soloists generated served only to accentuate this. Much of the enjoyment of Part Three of the work comes from hearing the contrast between the filigree work of the soloists and the solid ‘walls of sound’ from the choir; alas, it was the soloists who triumphed every time.


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