Haydn’s The Creation begins with a big bang – the big bang, presumably – and if you’re looking to top Handel’s Messiah, as Haydn was, then it was the only place and the only way to start.
Haydn was never so audacious as he was here in his “Representation of Chaos” and we can really only know how audacious by hearing this orchestral introduction unfold on instruments of the period – or in this case The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Mark Elder. It was pretty unnerving, like hearing Haydn’s musical cosmos fall apart in order to come together again.
This strange disembodied and dislocated music was “created” out of the very particular character of these instruments – strings whose colour drains to nothingness, coarse, earthy bassoons, rasping stopped horns and ferocious fortissimi in brass and hard-sticked timpani that don’t obliterate the rest of the orchestra.
The biggest and most startling of those comes famously with the words “let there be light” – or rather word since Haydn has us see the light in flaring wonderment only as the “light” is ordained. It was blinding here with shining trumpets and a long-bowed aurora of violins. And it established what a mighty sound the 40-voice Choir of the Enlightenment can produce - relative, of course, to their orchestra. Everything is relative and it’s amazing how our ears adjust to a completely different set of dynamics. Climactic moments such as this in Elder’s reading will have registered far fewer decibels than a bigger and more contemporary chorus and orchestra - but they sounded more overwhelming, more extreme.
And, of course, a select and tight little choir like this is capable of far greater agility and deftness of touch. The buoyant chorus “A new-created world” danced as if to Papageno’s bells (the character of the tune disarmingly similar) and as we arrived at each celebratory paean to the new order – Haydn’s view of humanity was unequivocally optimistic – the lean and rhythmically incisive interplay of voices achieved lift-off far more readily.
Elder fielded three smashing soloists. Sally Matthews rejoiced in her ornate contributions spinning out the trills and melismas greeting the “green” new world and relishing the cutesy charms of her ornithological survey in part two – the cooing doves and fluting nightingale where her music stops to listen and then imitate.
Andrew Kennedy’s tenor and Neal Davies’ bass emerged the most charming storytellers with Haydn’s ever resourceful orchestral imagination providing the colour illustrations: the roaring lion’s growling trombones, the burrowing basses dutifully tracing the path of the worm, the heavy beasts flattening the flora to rude flatulence from the contra bassoon.
But was there ever a more innocent sound than the three flutes garlanding the arrival of Adam and Eve? Only Haydn could have switched here from the expected combination of tenor and soprano and opted instead for bass and soprano – the masculine and feminine in sharper relief. But then The Creation is full of surprises and this performance sprung them with wit and wisdom.