Whether or not you agree that Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation is a ‘Gamechanger’ (the title of the series of which this performance forms a part) Simon Rattle’s direction certainly made it sound like one. It’s part of the OAE’s remit that the players are able to respond flexibly to a wide variety of conducting styles, and here they needed all that sensitivity, especially in terms of the conductor’s demands for dramatic contrasts in dynamics. There were times – especially during the opening ‘Representation of Chaos’ – when some sections, notably the brass, took a little time to settle down, but the sense of edge-of-seat excitement in the playing which is so much this group’s hallmark, was never far away.
The Choir of the Enlightenment clearly relished the grand celebratory choruses, ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ sounding positively Handelian in its splendour, and the superb ‘And God said, let there be Light: and there was Light’ blazing with intensity. Sally Matthews, standing in at short notice for Susan Gritton, sang the soprano part with her customary ease of projection, exactness of diction and alertness to verbal nuance. ‘The marvellous work behold amazed’ gave notice of her confidence and security, and her singing of her parts in the duets – especially the line ‘The coolness of even, O how she all restores’ could not have been more idiomatic.
Her Adam was the reliably grave Peter Rose, who not only has a splendid low D at his disposal as Raphael when narrating the specifics of all things created, but also manages to conjure up the required tenderness for the duets – not many basses can manage to scale down such a vast voice at ‘This world so great, so wonderful’ to such effect. John Mark Ainsley’s Uriel was as beautifully sung as you’d expect, with the right sense of wonder at ‘He made the stars also’ and the ideal heroic edge to ‘In native worth and honour clad.’ He delivered his final lines – that pious reminder to the ‘happy pair’ that they should, as Milton originally put it, ‘know to know no more’ with a finely sardonic edge, appropriate perhaps to our cynical view of such sentiments.
The newly-appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was conspicuous by his presence on this occasion, and one can only hope that he shared the sentiments of a member of the audience at the premiere of Haydn’s work in 1799: “I never left a theatre more contented, and all night I dreamed of The Creation of the world.”
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.