Recording of July 2008: Haydn: The Creation

HAYDN The Creation Sandrine Piau, Miah Persson, sopranos; Mark Padmore, tenor; Peter Harvey, baritone; Neal Davies, bass; Chetham's Chamber Choir, Gabrieli Consort of Players; Paul McCreesh
Archiv 477 7361 (2 CDs). 2008. Nicholas Parker, prod.; Jonathan Stokes, eng. DDD. TT: 108:56
Performance *****
Sound *****

Between 1796 and 1798, when Haydn composed The Creation, he was the most beloved composer the world had ever known. Already an old man, he had befriended and outlived Mozart and was deeply religious: he prayed daily that he might live to finish this oratorio. "I spent much time over it because I expect it to last for a long time," he wrote. In fact, it was performed dozens of times before his death, in 1809, and has never disappeared from the repertory. The text is taken from Genesis, the Psalms, and Milton's Paradise Lost; the original author is unknown. But a Baron van Swieten (musician, diplomat, librarian) translated the texts into German for Haydn to compose to, and the first performances of the work were as Die Schöpfung. Van Swieten later translated—at times quite awkwardly—the text back into English, and nowadays the work is still more frequently performed in German.

For this recording, conductor Paul McCreesh has cleaned up the Baron's English and made the text more singable and sensible. Whereas we once might have heard, referring to Adam's forehead (No.24), "The large and arched front sublime / of wisdom deep declares the seat," McCreesh gives us the far less bizarre "His noble, gen'rous brow sublime / declares a wisdom deep within." Happily, almost every word of aria, ensemble, and chorus can be understood on this recording.

This is, I believe, only the second recording to use the number of players and singers Haydn actually wanted to perform this work. Normally in "authentic" performances, that means less, but for this work Haydn went huge: Christopher Hogwood's recording (L'Oiseau-Lyre 430-397) uses 200—the number, it is believed, that Haydn led at a 1799 performance. McCreesh does the same.

For those used to either standard or "regular" period-instrument readings, Hogwood's and McCreesh's come as revelations—they really sound as if the sky has opened up. The huge brass and wind choirs turn each of the grand choruses into something truly biblical in scope. My preference for period instruments in this repertoire comes from the more "basic" sound they make: the parched thwaps of the timpani are properly thunderous rather than merely loud; the vibrato-free, gut strings underline the eerie chromatic sounds of Chaos, and elsewhere can soften the effect that dozens of strings might have on the music; the flutes are more birdlike; and the brass's dissonance is cruder—just listen to the effect it has near the close of "Achieved is the glorious work," just before we're "alleluia'd" for the final times. There is plenty of "Romantic" tone painting in this work—animals, storms, and sunsets are depicted—and the massed period instruments seem to give more colors to the words.

McCreesh takes 10 minutes longer with the oratorio than does Hogwood, but nothing lags; when something seems oddly slow, such as Chaos, or the close of Raphael's recitative about the worm (No.21), it is for dramatic tension. Elsewhere, tempos are chosen for maximum clarity: there's not a blurred coloratura run, every voice is clear in fugal passages, and there's a forward propulsion throughout that actually turns this into the telling of a grand story.

Watford Town Hall is a spectacular space: resonant without echo, bright and roomy, and capable of capturing everything from the gigantic finales of choruses to the softest solo-soprano pianissimo without fidgeting. When the text is contemplative, the singers work as if they're quietly amazed by God's bounty, and the recording catches their peaceful awe. Grand and intimate is a tough combination to find, but the engineers have somehow managed it.

The vocal soloists are crucial to this work, and McCreesh's are magnificent. Bass Neal Davies' Raphael is alternately graceful and sepulchral. Sandrine Piau's pliant, lovely soprano is a sheer pleasure; as Gabriel, she greets the world with wonder (and a great deal more warmth than did Emma Kirkby for Hogwood), and her embellishments of the vocal line are pointed and right on. Mark Padmore's Uriel might not erase memories of Fritz Wunderlich, but his sweet, smooth tone weds form and content ideally. And the three of them sound wonderful together. Part III introduces Adam and Eve, and for them McCreesh uses Peter Harvey and Miah Persson, who are properly blissful.

Besides the Hogwood, highly recommended performances are: John Eliot Gardiner's almost operatic period-instrument version; Karajan's 1965 reading with Gundula Janowitz and Wunderlich (despite its somewhat boxy mono sound); and his later set with the same two singers, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and a tenor who filled in after Wunderlich's untimely death. But if I had to own only one, it would be this new McCreesh version. I can find no fault with it.—Robert Levine