★★★★½ All God’s creatures spring to life in Suzuki’s thoughtful hands.
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
May 11, 2016
First performed in London (and in English translation), Haydn’s Creation crowned the great man’s career in 1798. The return visit by the 66-year-old composer was the season’s celebrity drawcard, and knowing the British obsession with Handel (and Messiah in particular), Haydn was aware of what he was up against. History suggest that he didn’t disappoint, and Die Schöpfung (in its German version soon) was soon fêted for its bold dramatics and novel effects back home in Vienna as well before going on to conquer Europe.
To get it right, a conductor needs to marry the novelty with the choral and orchestral fireworks in a cohesive narrative arc, and that is precisely what Masaaki Suzuki did in a richly detailed, dynamic reading with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and as perfect a trio of soloists as you could hope for. The Japanese maestro is a period specialist and his taut, low vibrato approach to strings (a perfectly formed 38 of them) allowed the delicate niceties of Haydn’s pictorial woodwind to shine through in luminous detail. Valveless trumpets and impactful period timpani helped the crisp, rhythmic drive.
Suzuki’s sprightly reading was never rushed and often electrifying and his focus on orchestral clarity allowed each delicious detail of Haydn’s imaginative storytelling to have its moment in the sun. Whether it was those moody discords colouring the representation of chaos, the sunrise rearing up from flutes to full orchestra, or the moonrise building mysteriously from deep in the double basses, this was a captivating, illuminating reading. The gossamer string textures allowed so many soloists and sections to shine that I lost count, but I’d have to mention Andrew Nicholson (on loan from WASO), who was outstanding on flute all night, Matt Ockenden and Fiona McNamara for some gurgling duetting on bassoon, Robert Johnson and Rachel Silver for their haunting, rock-solid work on horns and Richard Miller who seemed to be having a ball with those hard sticks rattling on his tiny timps.
The three soloists were very special indeed. Allan Clayton is one of Britain’s brightest stars (he’ll sing the title role in Brett Dean’s Hamlet for its Glyndebourne premiere next year). As Uriel, his smooth, confident, communicative tenor was deployed to great effect, whether in aria or recitative. With pinpoint diction he revelled in depictions of thunder, rain and snow, and his perfect lyricism totally nailed In Native Worth.
Neal Davies matched him depiction for depiction as a ripe, sonorous Raphael. A master word painter, his focussed, fruity baritone could be laden with mystery, enunciating the void, or full of fun rattling off the multifarious beasts of the field. Rolling in Foaming Billows and Now Heaven In Fullest Glory Shone were both standouts.
German soprano Lydia Teuscher was purity itself as a radiant Gabriel, effortlessly arpeggiating with an easy top and a natural affinity for the text. On Mighty Pens with its turtledove bassoons was beautifully finessed. Just occasionally she was buried by the full orchestra or chorus, but her duet with Davies as Adam and Eve was enormous fun, the two singers sharing the odd cheeky look as she pledges wifely obedience and capturing the erotic undertones of the plump fruits with which the Garden of Eden is replete.
As the evening’s chorus, the 140 strong Sydney Philharmonia Choirs proved their worth, singing with confidence, accuracy and style. The great celebratory choruses (Achieved is the Glorious Work, The Heavens are Telling and Sing The Lord Ye Voices All) came across loud and clear thanks to their passionate advocacy. Occasionally I would have liked a little more male voice in the mix (the balance was 86 women to 54 men), but all sections provided strong, solid support and contrapuntal details were never inaudible.
The Sydney Opera House was rather sparsely filled for the first of these four concerts and the reception at times felt inexplicably subdued. A pity, as you’d have to travel a country mile to hear Haydn’s masterwork as lovingly delivered as it was at the hands of maestro Suzuki and co.
The Creation is at Sydney Opera House until May 16