Classical: More hit than myth

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The Independent Culture
THOUGH HAYDN is often praised for his musical humour, it's not generally known that he also set cryptic crossword clues to music. Take, for example, the soprano aria "On mighty pens uplifting soars the eagle", from his oratorio The Creation, premiered two centuries ago this year. Pens is a three-letter synonym for wings. To get the connection, try pens, or quills, from old English pinne, from Latin penna, meaning feathers.

The text for The Creation is knotted with this kind of infelicity, which perhaps explains why Anne Hunter, wife of Haydn's friend, the famous English surgeon John Hunter, made her own version of these famous words. Whether the composer ever saw it, or approved, remains unclear. However, it came to light some years ago, and was first performed in 1993 by a choir and orchestra consisting largely of medics. Hunter's arrangement is not without its 18th-century periphrasis: "the scaly fry that lave in his green wave" is quite a mouthful. In general, though, there is nothing it lacks in clarity that is any less opaque in the standard libretto.

The Stationers' Hall proved an excellent venue for a revival of her version, given as part of the St Ceciliatide International Festival of Music, directed by Penelope Rapson. This was billed as the first performance on period instruments, and it was given by Fiori Musicali, who just managed to squeeze their choir and orchestra into one end of the hall. Though the forces used were small, with only three soloists, and brass and timpani high up in the gallery, there was plenty of historical precedent for doing it this way. Some of the playing in the famous opening depiction of chaos sounded authentic in other ways, though tuning and ensemble improved as the evening progressed, and the joy of Haydn's tone-painting was especially marked in the clarity of the hall's acoustic.

The details of its standard text excepted, The Creation is a work of wonderfully artful simplicity. The score contains music that is mature Haydn at his finest, and the structure, though a straightforward telling of the myth, ends with a sense of profound satisfaction, not least because we hear its radiant close against the knowledge that things in the garden did not turn out well, despite the praise and glory.

Penelope Rapson gave an unforced reading of the work, letting it unfold naturally at its own pace, while retaining control of details of the performance. The accompanied recitatives were finely honed orchestrally; God's creation of the agile tiger, the bounding stag and the slothful worm were especially well evoked. For the choruses, Rapson chose speeds that conformed to their Handelian cut, measured to fit the resonant interior of the building. Soprano Patrizia Kwella was a clear-toned Gabriel and Eve, and Simon Birchall, bass, an authoritative Raphael and Adam. Tenor Willis Morgan took the part of Uriel cheerfully and confidently. Together, they made a flexible trio in the closing chorus of Part 1 and the penultimate number of Part 2; and Kwella and Birchall, for their Part 3 number "With every good, most bounteous Lord", and enchanting duet.