Haydn (Die) Schöpfung
Always an unaffected and inspiriting Haydn conductor, Colin Davis again reveals his profound sympathy for the composer on this LSO Live Creation, in German (Haydn would have expected a British performance to be sung in English), recorded at concerts in the Barbican. Encouraging lithe, rhythmically pointed playing from the LSO, he distils an authentically Haydnesque spirit of joyous exhilaration. Yet he is also acutely responsive to the work’s majesty and awe, its evocation of what the 18th century termed “the sublime”. Where some conductors, notably Harnoncourt and Norrington, stress the slithery eeriness of the primeval void, Davis conjures its strangeness and infinite loneliness. Here and in the other orchestral tone-poems – the sunrise and moonrise, the radiance of the first morning in Paradise – he combines an intense feeling for colour and atmosphere with a marvellous breadth and inevitability of phrase.
The LSO Chorus, numbering, at a guess, around 100, cannot, of course, match the focus and incisiveness of the professional choirs used by Harnoncourt, Gardiner et al. Sopranos are not always steady, and in a recording that tends to favour the orchestra over the choir, entries in the big fugal numbers lack the requisite impact. Yet from the hushed evocation of the spirit moving upon the face of the waters and the overwhelming cosmic blaze on “Licht”, the choir sings with sensitivity and full-throated enthusiasm; and Davis ensures that each of the choruses that close the three parts builds thrillingly to an incandescent climax.
After a prosaic (and under-the-note) initial entry, Dietrich Henschel is a fiery and imaginative Raphael and an ardent Adam – though the combination of a fast tempo and a lack of true soft singing make for a less-than-poetic “limpid brook”. Occasionally – say, in the description of the first sunrise – Ian Bostridge can force his lyric tenor beyond its comfort zone. But his is a subtle, involving performance, minutely attentive to the sound and sense of the German text. In the creation of the first woman he and the LSO’s principal cellist Tim Hugh vie with each other in eloquence and tenderness. Sally Matthews, with a darker, creamier voice than most sopranos in this work, makes a sensuous Eve, though she sounds a shade severe and charmless in Gabriel’s two arias. “Nun beut die Flur” (aka “With verdure clad”), especially, needs more of a smile in the tone.
Other, minor, provisos include a prominently tinkling harpsichord in places (ie the big choruses) where it is least wanted. While the period-instrument versions from Harnoncourt, Gardiner and, for a performance that replicates the grand scale of the 1799 public premiere, McCreesh still top my Creation shortlist, I shall certainly return to this new recording:
for much of the solo work, for the glorious playing of the LSO and, above all, for Davis’s wise, joyous direction.