HAYDN The Creation – McCreesh
Haydn and his librettist Baron van Swieten conceived The Creation as the first bilingual oratorio and would surely have been perplexed that Anglophone record-buyers seem to prefer the work in German. The main problem, of course, is that the Baron’s command of English failed to match his self-confidence, prompting many attempts to improve on the original. On this new recording, Paul McCreesh’s emendations are less radical than those on the two other available versions in English (from Simon Rattle, 4/91, and Robert Shaw, 12/92), but on the whole more successful, retaining all the Milton-inspired quaintness of van Swieten’s text while rectifying his mistranslations and clumsy Germanic word order.
Language apart, McCreesh’s recording differs from its period competitors – Gardiner (Archiv), Harnoncourt (DHM), Spering (Naxos) and Christie (Virgin) – in scale: where they typically use a smallish professional choir and an orchestra of around 50, McCreesh pits a 113-strong band against a chorus of similar numbers. Abetted by the glowing, spacious acoustics of Watford Town Hall, the big celebratory choruses make a more powerful impact than in any of the rival period versions. Occasionally – say in the rollicking fugue in “Awake the harp”, here done at a constant fortissimo – I would have welcomed more nuanced dynamics. But there is no denying the incandescence of the climaxes to “The heavens are telling” and the final “Praise the Lord, uplift your voices”.
In all the choruses McCreesh’s pacing – eager but never hectic – and rhythmic energy are wonderfully inspiriting. He is acutely responsive, too, to the work’s mystery and awe, daring, and vindicating, slower-than-usual tempi for “Chaos” (launched by the most apocalyptic of timpani rolls), the Sunrise and the first morning in Paradise, celestially evoked by the Gabrieli’s trio of flutes. A pity, though, that he allows the cannon-fire timpani to pre-empt Haydn’s cosmic blaze at “light”.
McCreesh’s trump card is his solo team, superb both individually and as an exceptionally sensitive ensemble. I can’t recall ever hearing the trio near the close of Part 2, “On thee each living soul awaits”, sung with such radiant inwardness. Other highlights include Sandrine Piau’s graceful, smiling “With verdure clad”, here a truly happy song to the spring, Mark Padmore’s tender legato in Haydn’s portrayal of the first woman, and Neal Davies’s deep, velvet softness in “the limpid brook” and his hieratic reverence in the sublime arioso “Be fruitful all, and multiply”. Peter Harvey, supple and lyrical, and Miah Persson, with a touch of sensuousness in her vernal tone, are beautifully paired as Adam and Eve. The less consistently cast Rattle recording sometimes generates more fun. But for a Creation in English, this new version – exhilarating, poetic and marvellously sung – becomes the prime recommendation.