And Haydn said – let there be enlightenment.
And there was. The Creation is a loveable and audacious work and perhaps part of the problem with this well-drilled, picture-perfect, performance was that loveability was achieved at the expense of the audacity. Let’s just say that Haydn’s wondrous series of “special effects” – not least the zoological extravaganza of part 2 – failed to amuse or startle in ways we know they can, while the inspirational succession of recitatives, arias, and choruses came and went offering pleasure but rarely astonishment.
Even music as fertile and inventive as this needs thoughtful characterisation. Rene Jacobs and his very accomplished Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and RIAS Chamber Choir seemed loathe to temper their well-practised 18th century manner with the requisite dash of rebelliousness; the choral singing was very “proper”, too proper.
In the beginning, of course, there was Chaos and Haydn’s daringly amorphous prelude began promisingly with stark unformed phrases and instrumental sonorities cut to the bone: white, toneless violins and the rough-edged thud of skin-covered timpani. But the chorus’s great cry “Let there be light!” was hardly elemental and it soon became clear that part of the problem with performing great and familiar works like this is that our expectations are raised with repetition, and something – be it a simple dynamic contrast, a rediscovered harmony, or simply the frisson between text and music – is needed to rekindle our sense of a first-time experience.
Thomas Quastoff did so with his first pronouncements as the archangel Raphael, reliving the occasion of his professional debut in the role. He has a lieder singer’s awareness of text and relish of storytelling and created a modicum of awe with his gravely expectant descents below the stave. When God creates whales and Haydn has them multiply in divisi violas and cellos, the fusion of words and music is, and was here, wonderfully mysterious.
But perhaps the art of creation on Haydn’s part requires less calculation and more revelation. Of course, it’s impossible to resist at some level this compendium of charming and guileless musical numbers and when Adam and Eve finally did their business, the lovely soprano Julia Kleiter embellishing their closing duet with all manner of finely spun melismas, suddenly all seemed right with the world. But the creation of the world is a bigger idea and Jacobs simply didn’t embrace it as Haydn did.