Review of Haydn's The Creation, 25 May 2013

Haydn’s evergreen Oratorio The Creation was given an wholly new presentation by the excellent Sussex Chorus under Maestro Neil Jenkins, Soloists and Southern Pro Musica Orchestra on a mild, May evening in Brighton’s musical barn, St Bartholomew’s church.

Haydn’s time was one of considerable change, both socially and in awareness of what we are and where we belong in our universe.  Dr Chris Arridge, an expert in space environments surrounding giant planets, delivered a deeply researched summary of how Galileo’s early 17th century discovery of the heliocentric nature of our place in space had been crushed through the continuing belief in Creationism until astronomic research confirmed our relationship with the other planetary bodies. Despite being able to see this for himself through Sir William Herschel’s own telescope, Haydn’s setting still holds the biblical story of God’s creation of the world, and all that’s in it, over six days. Current scientific thinking holds the time to have been around 4.6 billion years, but time is relative.

So to the music. This work is very much held together by the three soloists through the established recitative and aria or chorus format. However, Haydn both writes habitually short sections and gives the chorus many short dialogues with the soloists so keeps the pace moving and our attention focused. The opening ‘orchestral chaos’ alluded to in the spoken introductions, very daring and evocative in its day, still holds us spell-bound and Michael George’s opening, evangelical bass recitative describing the beginnings of things, with its choral response to the creation of ‘light’ were magical. Paul Smy’s strongly delivered tenor dialogue with the choir followed, describing how chaos was dramatically dispelled for order as the First Day appeared at God’s command. Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz’s very full and almost coloratura soprano dialogue expressed amazement at the ‘marvellous work’ and the chorus duly responded ‘with praise of God’. And so the pattern was set. Laura’s vocal gymnastics in the aria ‘With verdure clad’ and, with the other soloists sharing the glory, in ‘the Lord is great’ were dramatic.

In a way, the supporting nature of the choral writing belies its difficulty. To sing an extended section, with melodic points developed and repeated, allows the chorus to build up a momentum, but this work has very few such moments so the chorus has to enter already up and running and to make their musical point immediately. This they achieved and credit goes to both their own skills and to the training and discipline they had received through the offices of Neil Jenkins. Both entries and exits were, with very few exceptions, right up to the mark and the attention to detail – the barn requires exacting diction and togetherness – was highly commendable. Neil Jenkins’ tweaked text – revised after considerable research – was interesting, although the very style of libretti – here, most likely mainly by Charles Jennens, a collaborator with Handel – will always be distinct and gives the music part of its character and charm.

The orchestra were very good, with lovely flute and other woodwind passages and terrible –intendedly so – evocation of heavy beasts in Michael George’s descriptive aria about the creatures on the earth in the brass. The strings, always the main work-horses in this genre, were accurate and sensitive – although the realisation of light and shade which the score suggests – and was achieved in the opening section -  were not always evident. And ably supporting all the recitatives, notably in the very musically sensitive accompaniment to Adam’s and Eve’s homily towards the finish, was the very accomplished Nicholas Milner-Gulland on the harpsichord. 

This was a thoroughly enjoyable performance from a fine choir and associates. The importance of such events is huge in a world where the immediately accessible and disposable are too easily valued over the durable. We risk losing established culture at our peril and long may choirs of this excellent standard continue to develop and flourish.

Simon Austin