Haydn: The Creation

Sarah Tynan, Jeremy Ovenden, Matthew Brook STB-Bar, Handel and Haydn Society, Harry Christophers director
98:15 (2 CDs)
Coro COR16135

In an era when creationism is generally regarded solely as the province of a few eccentrics, Haydn’s great oratorio is surely a deeply paradoxical work for both performer and listener. How does one approach it in today’s world, not only in the terms of the creation itself but also of a text that has Eve singing to her Adam, ‘Thy will is law to me’? Feminists shudder! One answer for performers, of course, is to take the work head on, submitting to the blazing genius and deep faith of its composer. That is fundamentally the approach taken in this live Boston performance from May 2015 given by the Handel and Haydn Society (H & H), America’s oldest surviving concert giving organization.

Like Christopher Hogwood (a predecessor as artistic director of the H & H) in his splendid L’Oiseau-Lyre recording, Harry Christophers has chosen to give the work in English, perfectly reasonable given that Haydn himself was keen to retain dual language versions of the work. Christophers’ decision is also thoroughly vindicated given that one of the major strengths of the performance is the manner in which it communicates the text so strongly. Both soloists and chorus employ excellent diction and a real sense of rhetorical understanding. The male soloists, the Uriel of tenor Jeremy Ovenden and bass Matthew Brook’s Raphael, are particularly outstanding in this respect, most especially in the magnificent descriptive accompanied recitatives that account for some of the work’s most unforgettable passages. Otherwise the contribution of the soloists is very good, if not perfect. All three voices, especially that of soprano Sarah Tynan (Uriel), employ an excess of vibrato.

Christophers’ slow tempo for Raphael’s opening recitative immediately leads Brook into displaying a wide, continuous vibrato, but thereafter he settles down to keep it under greater control, though his tone has at times a tendency to insecurity. But overall this is a fine interpretation, frequently displaying great authority and considerable nobility in the early numbers of Part 2. Ovenden, too, excels in bringing a strong sense of character to recits, ‘In rosy mantle’ making an especially striking impression after the exquisitely lovely opening of Part 3, the three flutes evoking the tranquility of bright, Elysian dawn. Tynan copes impressively with fioritura of ‘On mighty pens’ and generally with embellishments (she even sports a trill), but the voice tends to stridency in the upper register and I suspect she might be happier with later repertoire. The treatment of ornaments is not always convincing and fermatas lack the expected cadential flourishes.

If the choral singing by a sizeable force lacks the ultimate in finish and finesse, it certainly makes up for it in verve and commitment, the climaxes of the big choral numbers often spine-tingling in intensity. But the real hero here is the orchestra, which throughout responds to Christophers’ insightful, penetrating and ever sensitively phrased direction with playing of superlative quality in every department. There are really far too many examples to which attention might be drawn, but I will just mention the beautifully judged introduction to ‘On mighty pens’, the prominent wind parts exquisitely balanced, the strings’ dotted quavers and semi-quavers delightfully pointed. Vocal shortcomings perhaps keep this version from the top of the pile, but there is so much here to enjoy, indeed relish.

Brian Robins