MUSIC / Beginning at the beginning: LP / Norrington - Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
KLAUS Tennstedt was indisposed. To say that The Creation according to Roger Norrington would be different hardly begins to set the scene. This was not so much a substitution, more a re- evaluation. Tennstedt delivers Haydn's masterwork to the very portals of 19th-century German romanticism; Norrington is far more interested in breaking 18th- century sound-barriers.

The Prelude dawns like the advent it is - something new and unheard. This was the London Philharmonic, yet their violins - drained of their enriching vibrato, thin, vaporous - didn't belong in our time. Haydn's representation of chaos is quirky, unformed, and Norrington is at once pouncing on the harmonic ambiguities, the seemingly misplaced chords, the erratic sforzandos, the odd streaks of clarinet and bassoon.

Modern woodwinds, of course, cannot effectively fake the 18th- century sound and manner as can their string counterparts, and there were times here when one craved the earthy, woody, bucolic character of period instruments. When Haydn opens Mother Nature's account and all manner of beasties take their bow, the fantasy of the scoring would undoubtedly have been enhanced. Or was it just that the London Philharmonic woodwinds were simply too tasteful and well-honed - a shade anonymous even?

Actually, in terms of pulse and pace, Norrington's reading never felt especially 'authentic' in any accepted sense. Tempi were sharp and bouncy but broader than one might have anticipated. Speeds were never an issue: the spirit was. And the spirit was infinitely willing. From the moment 'God said, Let there be light: And there was light', Norrington was on. He's an immensely infectious presence, an animated caricature of a conductor made flesh: he swoops on details like a bat; the funny twirls of the baton, the big slashing gestures are all part of a voracious energy. To see him layer Haydn's great choruses, leaping to a critical tenor entry here, a key soprano phrase there, is to know why the London Philharmonic Choir sounded lustier and more engaged than they have of late.

It's hard not to pick up on Norrington's own elation and renewed excitement in this music. In the chorus of light, one has not truly seen the light until he weighs in with the climactic trombone entry. Similarly, Haydn's tumultuous string figurations, still more his trumpet and drum tattoos (hard, wooden sticks, naturally), are zealously encouraged, a blaze of affirmation every time.

A trio of highly experienced soloists - Felicity Lott, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and David Wilson- Johnson - were the story-tellers, none of them at their absolute best, but each with their moments and all visibly at one with the good-humour of the occasion. Rolfe Johnson painted hazy images of sun and moonlight; the first green shoots sprouted to some felicitous upper-register work from Felicity Lott; David Wilson-Johnson enjoyed the sound of the words - the fish and fowl, the heavy beasts and kriechendes Gewur ('creeping thing') of God's zoo - while his light bass-baritone was well-matched with Eve in Eden. But again, it was Norrington who ultimately made the joyful noise happen. It mattered not a jot that the finish was not always what it might be, that the execution could here and there be called into question. He offers more than a performance, he insists that you share in the happy event. And Die Schopfung should always be that.

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