The wonder of his work
Royal Albert Hall
Joseph Haydn: The Creation
Christiane Oelze (soprano), Paul Groves (tenor), John Relyea (bass)
Charles Mackerras (conductor)
Choir of the Enlightenment, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
For some years up to the late 1990s, the first night of the Proms was by tradition a "big choral work", an appropriately English start whatever the work. For the past two or three years, though, the first night has consisted of a taster for one of the themes of the season and a less big choral work. This year there were three "Spanish" works before the interval and Walton's Balshazar's Feast afterwards. Processed through a short-order live television broadcast, it was meringue as a starter to steak tartare. Although some of the "Spanish" works later in the season are actually from Spain, not just exercises in exoticism, and are even interesting rarities, there is a high risk of lollipop and cliché overload.
The choral work meanwhile seems to have been displaced to the second night of the season. Slightly out of sequence, The Creation (performed in German) follows Balshazar's Feast in the Old Testament strand of this year's Proms, which is mainly represented by two Handel oratorios, Israel in Egypt and Samson. Haydn, visiting London, was inspired by the massed choral performances of Handel's oratorios that followed the centenary of his birth. He returned to Vienna with an English libretto (now vanished) that might have originally been intended for Handel. His friend van Swieten translated it into German and adapted it, and, once Haydn's setting was complete, produced an English performing text that is singable enough but doesn't show much trace of the language of the English Bible or Milton, its original sources. The English language is homage to Handel, as is the quantity and volume of the choral music, but Haydn's oratorio is qualitatively different to any of Handel's. Instead of ethical and emotional themes, often instantiated in episodes of contemporary resonance, there is a strongly pictorial survey of the wonder of creation. Even Handel's most pastoral scenes (in L'allegro and Solomon) evoke sounds and moods rather than light and substance. When Handel makes the sun stand still in Joshua, it is a pause in the movement of the music; when Haydn makes the sun rise for the first time, it is a massive, positive C-major chord. And it is impossible to imagine Handel evoking chaos, however well he could depict emotional disruption.
What Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, plus their choir, delivered was also a long way from the English choral blockbuster of tradition. Nor did it have a hard Viennese edge. Although Haydn isn't one of his specialisms, Mackerras has a personal sweetness that might also have been Haydn's, and he led a performance of lucid delight. Even the opening chaos had charm, a non-place of dreamy inconsequence rather than dislocation. The soloists were to the manner born. Christiane Oelze had a slight edge, perhaps as a native speaker of German, but Paul Groves was a perfect oratorio tenor and John Relyea had just the right touch of show-off in his depiction of the various marine and terrestrial beasts. Oelze and Relyea were a comparatively chaste, but no less joyful, Eve and Adam.