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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809): The Creation (H XXI,2)

Ida Falk Winland (Eve, Gabriel), soprano; Andrew Staples (Uriel), tenor; Robert Davies (Adam), David Stout (Raphael), bass
Musica Saeculorum
Dir: Philipp von Steinaecker

rec: Sept 12, 2012 (live), Brixen, Dom
fra bernardo - fb 1301272 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (1.42'20")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics E/D
Cover & track-list

At the time Haydn was invited to visit England he was the most celebrated composer in Europe. When his friend Mozart heard that Haydn planned to accept the invitation he tried to keep him from going. He argued that Haydn didn't know the language, but Haydn replied that his language was understood everywhere. He was right: when he arrived in England he was received with the greatest honour. He soon started to compose and perform and his music met unanimous praise. He moved among the highest circles and his years in England turned out to be some of the happiest of his life.

When he left after his first visit he had not only left some of his best music - the first six of the so-called 'London symphonies' - but he also took something with him. In Westminster Abbey he had heard some of Handel's masterworks, in particular his oratorios Messiah and Israel in Egypt, which made a huge impression. He didn't waste time to study Handel's music and planned to write an oratorio himself. He had written one oratorio before, Il ritorno di Tobia, but that was in Italian, and in the tradition of the Italian oratorio, a work for solo voices and orchestra. It included some choruses, but these were meant to be sung by the soloists rather than a choir. It was in particular the choruses in Handel's oratorios which impressed him. At that time the choirs in performances of Handel's music were quite large, with over a hundred singers. It is no coincidence that Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung made a huge impression when it was first performed in Vienna. People had never heard anything like it.

Die Schöpfung was the direct result of Haydn's Handel experience. However, his plan to compose such an oratorio only materialized after his second visit to England in 1794-95. The violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon who had invited him to London gave him a libretto on the creation of the universe. Haydn didn't feel quite comfortable about it, partly due to his lack of command of English. He showed it to Baron Van Swieten, who played a crucial role in music life in Vienna and who was a great admirer of Handel. He translated the libretto into German, and it was this text which Haydn used for his oratorio. It met with great enthusiasm when it was performed several times in Vienna. Other performances followed in various countries, and often in other languages, including Swedish and Russian.

That brings us to this performance in English. The autograph is lost, and the primary source of the oratorio is Van Swieten's publication of 1800. Here the German text is given in full underlay whereas the English version is printed above the vocal parts. This is not, as one may expect, the original which Van Swieten had translated. Instead he retranslated his own German translation into English. It is this version which is mostly used in performances in English. One could argue that such a performance is just as 'authentic' as a performance in German. However, Haydn set the German version and the English text is generally considered inferior to the German. In some performances the English text by Van Swieten is revised, but here it is sung in the original version, based on the second edition which was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1803.

Whether one is satisfied with The Creation, as the English version is called, probably depends on how familiar one is with the German version and whether one can understand German. I probably have heard the English version some time in the past, but probably not more than once. I am much more familiar with the German version, and I find it far more satisfying than this English version. There are just too many moments that text and music don't fit very well. Obviously the music is sometimes slighty adapted to the English text, but that doesn't change much. Things like rhythm, accentuation and articulation remain the same and that is one of the reasons that text and music don't fully synchronize. Therefore I consider The Creation as little more than a historical curiosity.

It may surprise that this English version is recorded by an Austrian ensemble. However, a look at the names of the soloists shows that three of them are British; only Ida Falk Winland is not, as she is from Sweden. The booklet mentions that the members of the vocal and instrumental ensemble Musica Saeculorum are from across Europe. The list of the members of the choir reveals that nearly all of them are also British. Whether this is a matter of coincidence or a deliberate choice in the interest of an idiomatic performance of the choruses is for me impossible to figure out. The booklet includes no information about matters of interpretation.

That is a shame as several issues are debatable. With 11 violins, 3 violas, 4 cellos and 3 double basses the orchestra is considerably smaller than in the performances in Haydn's time. It sounds much larger, though, due to the large reverberation in the church where this recording took place. That in itself is a little surprising as this is a live performance, and one would expect the presence of an audience reducing the amount of reverberation. In my view this takes away some of the sharp edges and the illustrative effects of the orchestral score. Some choruses are less pronounced than they should be. It is less damaging in a performance of the English version as this text requires a less sharp articulation than the German text. Even so, it is rather unsatisfying. That is especially regrettable as the choir and the orchestra are outstanding. The way Haydn characterises the various animals is perfectly conveyed, and choruses such as 'The heavens are telling the glory of God' (Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes) and 'Achieved is the glorious work' (Vollendet ist das große Werk), are given incisive and impressive performances.

Another issue is the scoring of the solo parts. Many recordings have just three soloists, but some conductors decide to allocate every role to a different singer. I would like to know why Philipp von Steinaecker has two different soloists for the parts of Raphael and Adam, whereas the roles of Gabriel and Eve are sung by just one soprano. The only reason I could think of is that the bass roles are larger than the two soprano parts. Because of that the division of the bass parts over two singers could make sense, especially in a live performance. David Stout has a bit of a problematic start; the opening recitative doesn't come off very well. But that is the only thing to complain about; otherwise his interpretation of the role of Raphael is excellent, with a good diction and accentuation, and a perfect delivery. His description of the various animals is spot-on. Robert Davies does an equally good job as Adam, both in the recitatives and the arias. However, the duets with Ida Falk Winland are unsatisfying, mainly because of the latter's incessant vibrato. That is bad enough in her solos, but even in the duets she is not able - or not willing - to reduce it. It is a shame as otherwise her interpretation of her roles is rather good. Andrew Staples I had to get used to, and at first I found his singing a bit larmoyant, but as the performance progressed I got a more positive impression of his performance.

On balance this is certainly an interesting and in many ways good performance of The Creation. However, I still think that the German version is by far superior. Considering the virtues of this performance its weaknesses are all the more regrettable. Even so, as there are not that many recordings of this version available - the only other recordings with period instruments I can think of are those by Christopher Hogwood and Paul McCreesh - this one seems a good proposition.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Ida Falk Winland
Andrew Staples
Robert Davies
David Stout
Musica Saeculorum

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