St David’s Hall, Cardiff, May 8 2015
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales
Conductor: Stephen Layton
Soprano: Elizabeth Watts
Tenor: Allan Clayton
Bass-baritone: Matthew Brook
In recent years, many commentators have bemoaned the ‘museum culture’ of classical music programming (myself included, and notwithstanding the important work and contemporary relevance of many actual museums). But, putting aside the perpetual re-canonisation of familiar repertoire that this entails, I for one am at the same time grateful that Haydn’s own, spectacular natural history museum, so to speak – The Creation – remains a concert staple. Here in Cardiff, that great oratorio formed the joyous conclusion of an imaginative, short series of concerts by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales celebrating a creation theme; a series which featured lesser-known 20th century works performed by the orchestra, as well as the world premiere of Mark Bowden’s secular oratorio A Violence of Gifts.
There is no ‘right and wrong’ way to perform The Creation – if, indeed, there is any piece. In terms of scale, Haydn himself oversaw performances of chamber and vast proportion alike, depending on the venue and performers to hand. These days of course, we have opportunities to hear the work performed by period bands or modern orchestras of wildly contrasting stylistic bent. Moreover, it was the first ever bilingual large-scale score, with twin librettos in English or German to choose from; both were adapted for Haydn by the Viennese court librarian, concert patron and Enlightenment figure, Gottfried van Swieten, from an original of unknown authorship, now lost.
At St David’s Hall, we heard The Creation rather than Die Schöpfung. The well-balanced forces of a reduced BBC NOW orchestra and full chorus fanning the stage behind were joined by an exemplary trio of soloists (plus alto Olivia Gomez for the final ‘Amen’) under the expert, energetic baton of Stephen Layton. I was hardly the only person present in need of solace after what, for many, had been a dreadful electoral twenty-four hours. In the event, the performance proved radiant with Haydn’s life-affirming spirit and vigour. Echoes of a glorious English choral tradition abounded, reaching back to Haydn’s inspiration in Handel’s The Messiah and other dramatic oratorios of the English baroque ‘sublime’. But there were also surprising and delightful pre-hints of – dare I suggest – English romantic song in certain arias; notably, for example, that of bass-baritone Matthew Brook’s pastoral Raphael of the Third Day.
Devotion, vitality and humour were present in equal measure. Tracking the biblical account of Genesis, with added text from the Psalms and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Haydn’s pictorial innovations and orchestral contrasts were performed with infectious enthusiasm by Layton and his team. The famous, radical overture, ‘The Representation of Chaos’, smouldered and then blazed with light – if anything, only to be eclipsed on this occasion by a rapt sunrise at the Fourth Day. Orchestral ensemble was a little ragged at first, particularly on downbeats and in more elastic tempi, but, with encouragement from their tireless Leader, Lesley Hatfield, the players soon settled to produce a performance of character and distinction.
Things really burst into life at the entry of Allan Clayton as the archangel Uriel upon the First Day. His lyric tenor rang beautifully throughout, matched in richness of tone and delivery by soprano Elizabeth Watts, who revealed a lovely top C and some exquisite ornamentation in her Fifth Day aria as Gabriel; a highlight of the evening, with delicate accompaniment from the woodwind. Brook was a wonderfully clear and incisive Adam, as he was Raphael – perhaps stronger in the upper register than the lower, but never lacking in musical panache. Indeed, Brook’s opera buffa rendition of the various animals from ‘heavy beasts’ to ‘bleating sheep’ and the ‘sinuous worm’ – aided by fruity brass and lithe strings with but two, excellent double basses – was sheer comic pleasure.
One of the challenges for the soloists in The Creation is to be able to blend with each other and dovetail with the chorus as strongly as they shine in their individual parts. Here, the various textures and ensembles were gracefully navigated, with long-range, naturally breathing phrases matching vocal with instrumental lines. Layton moved fluidly from fortissimo tutti to the intimacy of secco recitative, creating a sense of grandeur whilst allowing individual flourish (including that of the spirited continuo team: fortepianist Andrew Wilson-Dickson and Guest Principal Cellist, Alice Neary).
The chorus sang magnificently, always ready to embrace the many swerves of key and tempo, with fugal passages full of rhythmic flair. Delivery was clear and precise without over-emphasis, exuding a joy in communal music-making that was as touching as it was elemental – and with audible words to boot from where I was seated.
Haydn had brought the original libretto back to Vienna with him after two extended visits to London between 1791 and 1795. The audience at The Creation premiere in 1798 (at the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna) were agog to see whether this new work would display the same dazzling orchestral writing and harmonic excitement of the ‘London’ symphonies that their beloved composer had written during this period. They were not disappointed. The success of the premiere was quickly followed by the same in Paris, Berlin and London itself, sealing Haydn’s reputation as a genius across the continent.
The work remains a wonderful achievement; as striking in its simplicity as in its radical effects (which would come to be frowned upon in the 19th century as too ‘worldly’ and ‘material’), and in daring to depict as enormous and hallowed a subject as God’s creation. Coming hard on the heels of a new, Enlightenment age of religious questioning and scepticism, surely only the most humble, optimistic of men could have hoped to succeed so universally at the task – and it is interesting how Haydn depicts Adam and Eve as a tender, blissful couple (so contrary to his own marriage!), with only Uriel’s late warning of ‘false conceits’ hinting at the Fall to come.
Haydn’s optimism, colour and inventive wit continue to gladden the heart today. A person of self-described cheerful disposition, he once commented ‘I was never so devout as when I was at work on The Creation. I fell on my knees each day and begged God to give me the strength to finish the work.’ This gloriously uplifting performance, with Layton’s fresh, dynamic interpretation, seemed especially heaven-sent.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is now available on iPlayer.
Elizabeth Watts will be singing the role of Pamina in Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming production of The Magic Flute, from May 22, Wales Millennium Centre, then touring.
Image from William Blake’s ‘God as an Architect’, an Illustration from The Ancient of Days, 1794.