Camilla Tilling (soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Bernard Haitink has waited until late his career to perform some of the greatest masterpieces of the choral repertoire. The Creation, the B minor Mass, and the St Matthew Passion are all works he has conducted for the first time in or approaching his eighties. ‘Authenticity’ has doubtless played a part here, as has Haitink’s typical modesty. Has the wait been worth it? Very much so, at least on the basis of this, the opening concert of this year’s Salzburg Festival.
Since Alexander Pereira added an extra week to the festival, having it open with an ‘Ouverture spirituelle’ programme of sacred music, The Creation, or Die Schöpfung, has featured first each time: a lovely invention of tradition. It would, I am sure, be fascinating to compare Haitink’s performance with those of previous years, not least the ‘period’ performance of Nikolaus Harnoncourt; alas, I am not in a position to do so. We all come with our own personal ‘traditions’, our own terms of reference, however. Passing swiftly over an unfortunate performance earlier this year from Richard Egarr, replacing the late Sir Colin Davis, my most recent performance had been with Sir Colin and the LSO in 2007; beyond that, the recording I tend most often hear in my head – and indeed to listen to – is Karajan’s classic first version (second, if you count his live Salzburg performance, issued much more recently). It seems inconceivable that anyone will ever match, let alone surpass, Karajan’s soloists, but it is a measure of the stature of this performance that Mark Padmore was anything but shamed by inevitable if odious mental comparison with the hardest act to follow, Fritz Wunderlich; indeed, Padmore’s was for me the finest vocal performance of all. And if my memories of the LSO/Davis performance – it has been issued on LSO Live, though I have yet to hear it – in general pip this Salzburg account, perhaps above all in terms of Davis’s inimitable way with orchestral Haydn, encompassing not only great musical wisdom but a sense of fun that is perhaps not Haitink’s strongest suit, then the distinctions will only be of degree. This was a fine performance, with no weak link, which crucially had one marvel anew not only at Haydn’s invention but also at one of the greatest monuments to the late Austrian Enlightenment.
Perhaps one of the greatest surprises concerning Haitink’s performance was the size of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: the strings ranged from ten first violins to four double basses. (Not that this need determine how we perform the work today, but it is of course a far smaller orchestra than Haydn, influenced by the monumental Handel performances he heard in London, either had in mind or received at the premiere.) There were a few occasions when I really felt that at least another couple of desks of violins would have benefited the performance – for instance, during Raphael’s Second Day accompagnato – but, even in a large house such as this, not very many. In any case, regret at the loss of Karajan’s deep pile was, if not entirely banished, largely compensated for by the alert, variegated playing of the scaled-down BRSO. Purpose and direction may be accomplished and communicated – or not – with any size of orchestra, and they were certainly present from the very opening of the ‘Representation of Chaos’. That first chord – well, not actually a chord, just a unison C, tonality itself still to emerge, like Heaven and Earth themselves – was magnificently ominous; the movement as a whole offered a properly Beethovenian essay in the symphonically generative. Indeed, it almost seemed to go beyond Beethoven. Whether at the fundamental level of harmonic rhythm, or at that of the detail of the menace imparted by clarinet figuration, everything was made to count – and was heard to be connected. (The contrast with the hapless exhibitionism of Egarr could hardly have been greater.)
The recitative which follows was taken beautifully slowly: a sense of the desolate, perhaps, or at least the empty, but pregnant with hope. The excellent Bavarian Radio Chorus intoned with sotto voce precision the Spirit of God’s moving upon the waters, before the celebrated outburst of ‘Light!’ It was perhaps not so overpowering as in some performances, yet made its point without exaggeration: typical Haitink. Uriel’s following aria was crisply played, anything but sentimental; Padmore offered – or seemed to do so – a slight stress – upon ‘Ordnung’, that crucial eighteenth-century preoccupation, again without exaggeration, certainly without the musical disruption some seem to think betokens attention to the verbal text. And in the chorus that followed, orchestral chromaticism was both sinuous and strongly symphonically generative, choral diction and pitching beyond reproach. A new created world indeed seemed to spring up at God’s command.
Hanno Müller’ Brachmann and Camilla Tilling, the other soloists, both had strong virtues. If Müller-Brachmann had, especially earlier on, a slight tendency to hector and indeed to bluff tone, that soon worked itself out. Tilling announced herself with ‘Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk’, where I cannot help but hear Karajan’s Gundula Janowitz. Tilling was very different indeed: almost hoch-dramatisch, certainly forthright and unquestionably attentive to the libretto. It was intriguing, and perhaps a little surprising, that Haitink seemed keen to highlight Haydn’s Handelian legacy im ‘Rollend im schäumenden Wellen’, not just the dotted rhythms, but their rhythmic and harmonic implications. The Munich flautist worked especial wonders here with the ‘limpid brook’, as did the woodwind section as a whole in the following ‘Nun beut die Flur…,’ Tilling’s line here and elsewhere ornamented. ‘Stimmt an die Saiten’ sounded revealingly close to Mozart’s Handel – Gottfried van Swieten’s performances of alte Musik were of great importance to Mozart and Haydn – and the clarity with which it proceeded enabled both a panoply of orchestral colour as well as choral vigour. The fourth day’s sunrise again made its point without exaggeration, prefigured by the pretty recitative tinkling on an early piano by James Johnstone. Padmore brought echoes of Bach – perhaps inevitably – to bear, delicate yet purposeful. As the first part drew to a choral close, the heavens telling the glory of God, the only thing I missed was Haydn’s smile, or indeed his leaping for sheer, unadulterated joy; however, Beethovenian goodness and greatness of spirit were not entirely inadequate substitutes.
Orchestral playing was just as beautiful, just as variegated following the interval. Gabriel’s first aria brought a wonderful cooing synergy between Tilling and the Munich woodwind – though was her ornamentation of ‘Liebe’ just a little overdone? Müller-Brachmann’s gravity matched that of Haitink in the following recitative injunction to be fruitful and multiply. Haitink’s tempi were not entirely without surprise; for instance, ‘Der Herr ist groß’ was taken at quite a lick. Crucially, however, it was not harried; it came as release. If ‘Mit Würd und Hoheit angetan’ delighted rather than ravished, Wunderlich’s – and Karajan’s – shadow falls especially long there. In any case, the opening of the third part, three flutes and strings alike, was truly beautiful by any standards: this was a beauty that did not need to ask whether we had noticed it. The opening of the ‘Hymn’ was again taken at a fleet tempo, but if it did not offer the same kind of rapture as Karajan, its own variety was undeniably present. Müller-Brachmann as Adam again occasionally proved hectoring: perhaps the less agreeable side of Fischer-Dieskau’s influence? However, as this extraordinary number progressed, any minor doubts were dispelled. It was a delight, and a moving one. Haitink’s relatively small scale seemed especially apt here in Eden. And Tilling sounded very much a different ‘character’ as Eve. Moreover, Müller-Brachmann naughtily relished the quickening dew, celebratedly echoed in Haydn’s own Schöpfungsmesse. I am not sure that the final chorus has ever in my experience so clearly echoed the end of Die Zauberflöte, not the least associative achievement in a thoroughly admirable performance.