Haydn (Die) Schöpfung
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s previous recording of The Creation is 18 years old and is beginning to show its age. The new version is better in balance and clearer in definition. The chorus (now as then the excellent Arnold Schoenberg Choir) is given more presence, the orchestral instruments are more sharply differentiated. The piano continuo, a notable feature of the original, has more prominence and joins more freely in the creative spirit of the whole. Harnoncourt’s way with the work has not changed greatly – it is, as it was, scrupulously attentive to detail but guided also by an eye for the pictorial imagination of the score and a deep feeling for its sense of wonder and reverence. Still, if one particular element has to be identified as favouring this new recording over its predecessor I would point to the soloists. The previous trio did good work – indeed, Hilary Finch reviewing in April 1987 found them to be a decisive asset – but the new one is better.
All three singers are of the younger generation, and all are rapidly developing artists. Dorothea Röschmann sings with a new authority here. Thus far she has sung sweetly and well, if perhaps discreetly and with a certain reticence of distinctive character and commitment. Here she seems to be remembering that, though both represent the state of innocence, Gabriel is an archangel and Eve the mother of mankind. Michael Schade, who sang Uriel in the Gardiner recording of 1995, is no longer the light tenor he was and has gained the confidence and insight to give full dramatic life to his singing.
The greatest difference comes with the replacement of Robert Holl by Christian Gerhaher. Holl, with his deeper, fuller voice, was a majestic Raphael, noble in manner, a worthy spokesman for the Creator. Gerhaher, lighter in weight and without a bass admixture in his baritone, suggests a more interesting kind of divinity: a being of intelligence, energy and wit. More Haydn-esque in fact. Also more even in the production of his voice, with its tones more clearly defined.
In 1986 Harnoncourt’s principal rivals on record were Karajan, Marriner and Kuijken. Since then there have arrived a fine version under Rilling, the always vital and interesting Gardiner and a long wished-for version in English by Rattle. There is also Thomas Hengelbrock’s performance with his admirable Balthasar-Neumann Choir and Ensemble for DHM: an invigorating experience (the fast choruses, particularly: ‘Vollendet’, ‘Gesegnet’, ‘Singt dem Herren’ and so forth), and for a time I thought it might claim precedence. On returning to Harnoncourt, the broader view prevails: less deliberately driven, this is more calmly responsive to rhythm, richer in colour – and wisdom.