Haydn: Die Schöpfung

Christina Landshamer, Maximilian Schmitt, Rudolf Rosen STB, Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Philippe Herreweghe
97:00 (2 CDs)
Phi LPH018

The reliable Archiv Music retail website currently lists no fewer than 61 versions of Haydn’s supremely uplifting oratorio. I’m certainly not going to claim to have heard all 61 (you probably wouldn’t believe me if I did), but I have heard a fair few and also reviewed quite a number over the years. Most recently, back in our November pages, I gave high praise to a new recording sung in English from the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston under their current music director Harry Christophers. Now here is a further contender from another doyen among early music choral directors.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the newcomer is that it has taken Philippe Herreweghe so long to record Die Schöpfung  (as one would expect his recording is sung in the original German, although in this review I’ll use the familiar English titles for arias and choruses), given that it is now 45 years since he founded the Collegium Vocale Gent. Yet it is perhaps an advantage that only now has Herreweghe decided to record Haydn’s choral masterpiece, for it is a performance that combines the assets of his many years experience with a perhaps less predictable freshness of approach that constantly delights the ear as well as the senses. The experience can be heard right from the outset, where the Representation of Chaos unfolds with a true sense of mystery, yet one that remains under total musical control. Listen for example to the beautifully articulated ascending quaver triplets that ripple through the strings and bassoons like some primeval awaking. Or move on some 15 bars or so to the exquisitely balanced wind writing for flutes, oboes and clarinets. And so it goes on throughout the performance. Time and again the ear is drawn to some solo or concertante passage, invariably beautifully played. The start of Part 3 (where we meet Adam and Eve) opens with playing of the rarest beauty, playing that somehow manages to encompass both delicacy and nobility.

Herreweghe’s soloists are not well known names, at least in Britain, yet they form a more satisfying team overall than did that of Christophers, not least because the vibrato that I noted among his soloists is not a problem here. The men are outstanding, being especially satisfying in Haydn’s wonderfully pictorial accompanied recitatives. There both Schmitt and Rosen positively relish the language and mimetic effects, declaiming the text with vividness and communicating a total involvement that draws the listener in. Both are also excellent with ornaments and passagework. If I find soprano Christina Landshamer marginally less satisfying it is simply that her admirably fresh-sounding singing conveys less character than that of her male colleagues. She is also uninclined to provide ornamentation, most noticeably at cadential fermatas, which sound bald when completely unadorned. But there are times when the voice opens out splendidly and her legato singing, especially in the duet ‘By thee with bliss’ (Part 3), is lovely. The chorus that Herreweghe has worked with for so long is predictably superb, splendidly incisive and inspired by the conductor to build the big choral climaxes to thrilling effect. Among less obvious examples of its excellence, the pinpoint rhythmic articulation of the choral and orchestral basses in ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ reminds us that the foundations of The Creation  lie firmly rooted in the Baroque.

There is no doubt in my mind that this elevated performance stands among the very best to have been committed to record. There is about it a joyous quality of the kind that has perhaps not always been associated with the somewhat sober Herreweghe, an intoxicating combination of supreme but never rigid control and true freedom of spirit. Nearly five stars all round, the one subtracted from Presentation being on account of the absurdly small print in the booklet!

Brian Robins

5554