This isn't just about Haydn's 'Creation'; it's also about Nikolaus Harnoncourt's. In 1953, while he was still a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, he founded the Vienna Concentus Musicus: 'the original ensemble for authentic performance' as the notes put it. And fifty years on, in March 2003, they marked the anniversary with the music of a composer who's been part of their explorations almost from the start.
So here we have Haydn celebrating the biblical creation, and Harnoncourt and his musicians celebrating the creation of their new world. A sense of occasion, then, is the least we should expect from these Vienna Musikverein performances...but if this new recording of Die Schopfung is to take its place alongside the best in the catalogue, it has to offer a great deal more than that.
The void evoked in the first few bars is bleak and barren, chilly vibrato-less strings and coldly gleaming brass, with winds bubbling away like some kind of primordial soup. The Holy Ghost moves as a choral whisper over the waters, before light blazes forth like the airburst of an atomic explosion: terribly beautiful. As the next pages of the Creation unfold, you realise how slowly Harnoncourt has taken the opening, events unfolding with a timeless inevitability, never rushed into being.
Dorothea Roschmann's gleaming soprano soars like an eagle at the start of Part 2, while moments later she's able to coo like a dove. The bass Christian Gerhaher hasn't quite the bottom end of the best of the competition, but his sinuous worm is very earthy. Tenor Michael Schade has the heroic tone that makes the most of Haydn's lines without stooping to stentorian bluster, and together they make a lyrical trio.
It's live, so it's not perfect. There are some untidy violin runs, and the odd moment where Harnoncourt's sudden spurts of adrenaline take one or two players by surprise. The Arnold Schonberg Choir feels a shade too comfortable, especially towards the end - a penalty perhaps for Harnoncourt's relaxed speeds, but then elsewhere you gain so much from his willingness to let the music breathe, and not push it relentlessly as some conductors of period instrument ensembles are wont to do. There's little audience noise, yet plenty of atmosphere, and for once I definitely would have liked to hear applause, just to emphasise the occasion. It's one of those recordings that you'd buy because you were there, but also because it's one of the most enjoyable and illuminating Creations on record, a tribute to Harnoncourt and his orchestras half-century of Haydn.
Like This? Try These:
JS Bach: St Matthew Passion (Gabrieli Players)
Haydn: Great Masses (Gardiner)
Pergolesi: Marian Vespers (Choir of New College, Oxford)