Haydn: The Creation (sung in German)
Sally Matthews (soprano)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)
Let there be no beating around the bush: this was a magnificent performance. I am beginning, or perhaps more than beginning, to run out of superlatives concerning Sir Colin Davis's music-making with the London Symphony Orchestra. This was fully the equal, however, of either of the previous two concerts held in celebration of his eightieth birthday. It vied in quality with a recording I had previously thought untouchable, that of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in this work. Indeed, were one to combine elements of both, I believe we should find ourselves but a hair's breadth from perfection. The additional good news is that the performance was being recorded.
This was very much Sir Colin's reading, beholden to no school or orthodoxy. The astonishing 'Representation of Chaos' was played with a mysterious, veiled quality, not from the strings, who minimised rather than eschewed vibrato. This we hear far too often nowadays, or rather we hear it for the wrong reason: on account of some dubious 'historical' dogma. Here, it was done for good musico-dramatic reasons, with sensitive application of vibrato rather than pseudo-ascetic self-denial. The creative act removed the veil, engendering orchestral playing that was sweet yet never cloying, incisive yet never brash, and supremely well-balanced throughout. As ever with Davis, the woodwind provided especial delight. (My Seen and Heard colleague Melanie Eskenazi recently suggested that this might have roots in Sir Colin's upbringing as a clarinettist, and I am sure this must be true.) Those three flutes at the beginning of the Third Part of the oratorio truly represented an annunciation of Paradise. Yet the rest of the orchestra was every bit as good. Whilst I admire the aforementioned Karajan recording greatly, I think Davis here had the edge in terms of careful yet never fussy differentiation of light and shade. Every line told, as did its combination with every other line. This was the Davis of his greatest Mozart achievements - and, of course, the Davis of those wonderful recordings of Haydn symphonies. If only there were more...
Comparisons, I know, are odious, but the soloists did not match the perhaps unmatchable team Karajan had at his disposal. Ian Bostridge presented a finely detailed Uriel, keenly responsive to the sound and meaning of the German text. His reading was not without its mannerisms, especially at the somewhat tremulous outset, but it was nevertheless a commanding, if undeniably 'English-tenor-style' performance. He can hardly be blamed for not being Fritz Wunderlich, the beauty of whose tone so ravishes under Karajan. Their reading of 'Mit Würd und Hoheit angetan' is one of the most beautiful things I have heard, never beautiful for its own sake, but as a supreme expression of Enlightenment humanism. By comparison, this aria was rather plain, although the surprise of its miraculous, Schubertian modulation did register. Likewise, Sally Matthews could hardly be expected to ravish as did Gundula Janowitz. Hers was nevertheless perhaps the finest of the soloists' performances. Where she might have been accused of a little mannerism, in her comely portrayal of Eve, there is ample justification in the text, especially the musical text. Moreover, she handled the difficult coloratura not just with technical aplomb (Janowitz had a few difficulties here, I recall), but with truly musical colouring. Dietrich Henschel, however, proved a variable soloist. There were ominous insecurities of tuning in his opening recitative. This problem lessened, although it never quite abated. He pointed the words carefully, but his tone was sometimes rather dry and lacked character in comparison with his colleagues, let alone with Walter Berry and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Raphael and Adam on the Karajan recording).
I can happily report, however, that the London Symphony Chorus was superb. This was, without exception, the finest choral singing I have heard in The Creation. It boasted everything: weight and lightness, warmth and clarity, and a keenness of response that would even put most smaller choirs to shame. Above all, it was wonderfully human. In this, Davis certainly had the edge over Karajan's far from negligible Wiener Singverein, still more so over one highly-regarded professional choir in another recording, whose performance is so clinical that it might be computer-generated. The singing was beautifully moulded, yet never self-consciously so. More importantly, it was truly exultant, as close to fulfilment of Haydn's challenge to praise the Creator as we shall have the fortune to hear this side of the heavenly host. The heavens really were telling the glory of God, and Haydn's work was truly enabled to display the firmament. This was a memorable performance indeed, which, unless something horrendous should happen in terms of its transfer to disc, should eagerly be acquired by all those who love what is perhaps Haydn's greatest single work.