Haydn: The Creation
Saturday 24 September
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Fortepiano: Peter Seymour
Chamber Organ: Darius Battiwalla
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Conductor: Juanjo Mena
Lucy Hall (soprano)
Robin Tristschler (tenor)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
To be Broadcast 6 October, 2pm, BBC Radio 3
Haydn's Creation, sung in German, was given a wonderful performance in Manchester last night. It was a joyful reading. On the grand scale it was powerful and uplifting with spine tingling choruses and rich orchestral sound, but it was also intimate with subtle colour, engaging solo singing and purpose. I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening seeing this familiar favourite given a concert performance of great insight. It trod the line between authentic and modern performance practice resulting in both a celebration of the story and a chance to enjoy the startling ingenuity and simplicity of Haydn's message. I dare say I won't hear as powerful a case for the work any time soon and any enterprising company should grab the tapes and get them out on CD. It was a belter!
I had been a little less than enthusiastic about the Proms performances of this orchestra but was glad to find it on fine form under guest leader Ioana Petcu-Colan. The soloists too blended well and voices shone across the difficult BWH acoustic. It was one of those great performances where everything seemed to be just right for the moment: any big work likes this needs all the right components in place and for me it seemed to be a very finely engineered.
The orchestra were well set for the piece - but not the usual BBC Philharmonic. Ten first violins went down to 4 basses as one might expect and pairs of woodwind. Continuo was supplied by cello, forte piano and a discrete but telling organ. Valveless trumpets and horns of smaller bore brought a much brighter sound and smaller timpani with hard sticks made for pointed interventions. The strings played for the most part without vibrato. This was historically informed in the best way I think - it revealed more of Haydn's sound world. Mena gave the contrabassoon and bass trombone more "space" in the sound picture for super dark textures and woodwind solos were wonderfully nurtured and echoed by supportive fellow players. This allowed for the delicate and nuanced pointing in Haydn's orchestral writing to come through. Most importantly the tutti were never forced. It was a complete delight though to hear the orchestra and chorus in full voice in the great choruses - the hall full of sounds.
The three soloists were characterful without over-egging the portent: suitably noble in part one, reverend in part two and ardent in admiration in part three. There was decoration, spritely delivery and joyful conviction in their contributions. Robin Tritschler stood in for a poorly Benjamin Hulett and was excellent - they all were. They shone across this large and unforgiving hall.
Maestro Mena was his usual attentive self - moving his musicstand a yard backwards and forward to be close to soloists or orchestra as the need arose. He danced away and there was much to enjoy here. There was no bagginess in this reading - Haydn thrives when lines are clean and rhythm sharp - I heard much of Eugen Bochum's rhythmic acuity in this reading. The ends of phrases were as crucial for him as the beginning and in some of the big arias he moved things along at pace which was very effective. The Handelian origins of this oratorio were wonderfully revealed: not least in his pacing, dynamic control and dramatic balance between choir and orchestra. Mean knows how to work choirs and their are few better the the CBSC - a group with power in reserve and acute sense of the interaction between melodic lines and clear delineation in counterpoint.
The reading as a whole just flowed beautiful and never dragged - the ardency of Part 3 was lifted by Adam and Eve's sense of wonder and gratitude. And Haydn helpfully spares us from the ghastliness to come... The set pieces were very special and the part 1 final chorus was as exhilarating as it was a wunderwerk. Powering along with a steady accretion of ideas and orchestral and choral line until it bursts out with sonic splendour. The "pastoral" - the movement behind Haydn's choice of theme - comes through not just in orchestral onomatopoeia (very well tempered) and descriptive texts, but also in the general thrust of our wonder at the bounty of a simple world. It's an enduring message - so this is not a religious work but a work on a religious theme. But there was nothing sanctimonious here.
It is sad that the hall was only half full, I think if it had been Mahler's Resurrection symphony again they would have been hanging from the rafters. I wouldn't pay to see that over the Haydn on any day of the week. The average age of the audience reminded me that Haydn isn't in vogue at the moment. It's very sad to know his great works are being neglected. Those who did come were very appreciative of the performance and as one gentleman said as we left "that'll give you something to sing in the shower".
The Creation is not a work we hear often and I haven't heard a recording or concert which brought out the work with such affection and respect for the score or such glorious celebration of Haydn's most wonderful writing. It was a great treat and a great of example of the flexibility and vast range of the BBC Philharmonic and their thoughtful, modest and innovative chief conductor.