...the recording captures the whole spectacle with apparent ease...
Andrew McGregor 2008-04-18
'Nobody would argue with the view that The Creation is Haydn's greatest single achievement', begin the notes. Oh, I don't know: Haydn String Quartets, anyone? It's a contentious statement, but if this big-band performance of the oratorio does anything, at least while you're listening you have few doubts that it is, as the heading has it: 'Haydn's Supreme Achievement'.
If you know Paul McCreesh's history as a 'musical reconstructionist', it won't surprise you to hear that he's attempting to evoke a famous first performance of the Creation. We're faced with forces that seem positively Mahlerian…but when the Creation was first performed in Vienna at the end of the 18th century it was on a grand scale; hence McCreesh’s 25 winds, 15 brass, 70 strings, timps and fortepiano continuo, plus his own augmented Gabrieli Consort and the Chamber Choir of Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. Right from the first notes the sheer scale of the drama is apparent, you feel the full force of order emerging from chaos and light from darkness. It marks McCreesh’s Creation apart from the obvious competition; Harnoncourt in his most recent (German language) recording use forces about half the size, and to get the same sense of scale in English and on period instruments you have to go back to Hogwood's L'Oiseau Lyre recording from 1990, which still doesn’t present the same sense of scale and dramatic (and dynamic) range as McCreesh and Co.
I confess my heart sank slightly when I read that he'd decided to 'improve' Haydn's English…what, no more 'flexible tigers', or other much-loved idiosyncratic turns of phrase that have embedded themselves in the subconscious over the years? I needn't have worried: McCreesh obviously loves some of the quainter corners as much as anyone, and his linguistic intervention is more subtle than I'd expected – trying to find a better fit for the English text to Haydn's rhythms.
Then there's the small matter of the casting, and here McCreesh scores as high as anyone, Harnoncourt included. You might raise an eyebrow that we have two sopranos for whom English isn’t their first language, but Sandrine Piau is a radiant Gabriel, even though she'll have you reaching for the printed text from time to time. By contrast Mark Padmore as Uriel caresses the words, and bass Neal Davies is particularly impressive as Raphael. As far as I know Haydn only ever used three soloists, but as Adam and Eve in the second part McCreesh casts Miah Persson and Peter Harvey – who make a lovely first couple. A special mention for the chorus, responding with alacrity to McCreesh's energetic direction…and what a celebratory impact they all make in the big set-pieces. But some of the most impressive moments are not necessarily the loudest: there's time for reflection, mystery, stillness, and many moments of quiet beauty. If you're after The Creation in English, this might just be the one to buy…and the recording captures the whole spectacle with apparent ease, which is an achievement in itself.