In the beginning...

The Proms opened on Friday with a performance of Haydn's 'Creation'. A week earlier, the work received a very different treatment at the QEH.
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The Independent Culture
Two Creations in seven days, one with period instruments, one with modern forces - a perfect opportunity for the Compare and Contrast game? Not quite perfect. For one thing, the Queen Elizabeth and Royal Albert halls are, acoustically speaking, different worlds. Transplant a piece of music from one to the other and it can become a new experience. For another, Andrew Davis's Creation, at the Proms Opening Night, wasn't a thoroughly modern performance; a fortepiano led the recitatives, and in front of the trumpets was a decidedly antique-looking pair of timpani.

Call it compromise if you will, but it worked. Eighteenth-century drums might well sound feeble in a Wagnerian crescendo, but in Haydn they fit snugly into the orchestral texture - not too prominent, and more crisply rhythmical than their latter-day descendants. Davis's slightly reduced BBC Symphony strings struck a good balance between Classical clarity and modern tone-weight. Haydn's orchestral prelude, "Representation of Chaos", was wonderfully atmospheric: a floating, veiled pianissimo which seemed to reach into the furthermost recesses of the Albert Hall, and hardly a cough from start to finish - now that was miraculous.

Up to the entry of the bass / baritone soloist and chorus, I'd say Davis was ahead by a length, The QEH acoustic tended to dry out the string sound of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in Roger Norrington's period style-conscious version. But Davis's Wolfgang Schone kept dropping just below the note, while Norrington's Robert Lloyd was quietly commanding, pitch absolutely true - you can't slip up at the moment of creation. The BBC and Enlightenment Choruses, depicting the Spirit of God moving on the face of the waters, were evenly matched. But then came the great moment: "and there was LIGHT", the chorus suddenly forte, the orchestra fortissimo. Davis's version was impressive enough; Norrington's 18th- century trumpets, drums and violins blazed.

At the finish, I'd say it was Norrington by a neck. If the Age of Enlightenment band yielded to the Albert Hall-enhanced BBC Symphony in atmosphere and sumptuous string tone, they made up for it in character. As the solo narrators list God's creations, species by species, Norrington and orchestra brought them to life as vividly as any David Attenborough special. It was the kind of performance that makes one realise how thrillingly new and alive the music must have sounded to its first audiences. And there were moments of special tonal beauty too: no modern wind section could match the delicate, sensuous loveliness of the three wooden flutes painting the scene at the opening of Part Three - "Fair morning breaks through rosy clouds".

Rhythmic elan is a very Norringtonian characteristic, and there was plenty of it in his performance, not just in short, exciting bursts, but sustained over long stretches. His Creation had such a lively (but not uncomfortably hurried) pace that it seemed over surprisingly quickly. Fortunately he had a team of soloists who could meet him all the way. Finnish soprano Hillevi Martinpelto rang out clear and true in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and her combination of agility, beauty of tone and sheer carrying power would probably have been better suited to the Albert than Davis's lighter- voiced Juliane Banse - though her musicality held the attention well enough. But Davis's robust and athletic tenor, Hans Peter Blochwitz, eclipsed memories of Norrington's somewhat cautious John Mark Ainsley.

Swings and roundabouts? No, the vitality of the Norrington QEH Creation left a more lasting impression on me than Davis's impeccably mannered, perhaps a little detached, reading. It may seem an odd thing to say after that, but the Davis Creation still made an effective, promising start to the Proms: a grand work, though without the mammoth forces that became almost de rigueur during the Drummond era, a more than adequate performance, and a dream Proms audience - capacity, quiet and so attentive you could almost feel it. If there's ever any threat to this great institution - from without or within - that really will be the time to man the barricades.

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