Saturday, April 09, 2011

Haydn’s Creation

Friday night I attended Philharmonia Baroque's performance of Haydn's Creation, sung in English. There was an unusually large number of personnel, with close to 100 people on stage, including a chorus of 40. An absurdly long contrabassoon rose straight up like a smokestack from the back of the orchestra. The performance had a consistently cheerful & bouncy mood which fit Haydn's optimistic music well. Some of the arias had a pastoral & even folksy feel, while the big choruses clearly evoke Handel's Messiah, alleluias & all. I was especially impressed by the chorus of joyful praise that ends Part I. The piece could have ended right there. No sin enters this sunny work, & the final duet for a prelapsarian Adam & Eve had them sounding like Papageno & Papagena. The English version of the text has its oddities. I've never heard of a tiger described as "flexible."

Nicholas McGegan led with his characteristically sprightly tempos. He clearly articulated the tone painting passages & brought out the score's dynamic contrasts. I enjoyed hearing the low blasts from the contrabassoon & trombones in the final number of Part II. The audience laughed at the musical depiction of a worm in the 6th day. Tenor Thomas Cooley was a stand-out among the soloists. He sang with great expressive range. Sometimes his clear, lyrical voice reached out into the hall, & other times he brought his sound down to half-voice, drawing the listener in. Soprano Dominique Labelle amused the audience with her imitation of a cooing bird in "On might pens."

There was only one intermission after Part I, making for a long 2nd half. The hall was nearly full. The audience was quiet & attentive, & they applauded only at the end of each part. After receiving a warm ovation, Maestro McGegan thanked us for 30 years of support for Philharmonia Baroque. I happened to be seated behind SFMike, which made it only slightly less difficult than usual for him to crack me up during the performance.

§ Haydn’s Creation
Philharmonia Baroque

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Dominique Labelle, soprano
Thomas Cooley, tenor
Philip Cutlip, baritone
Philharmonia Baroque Chorale
Bruce Lamott, chorale director

HAYDN: The Creation

Fri, April 8, 8:00 pm
San Francisco (Herbst)


David Lasson said...

My sense of the performance was that McGegan sacrificed some of Haydn's grandeur for the sake of sprightliness, and this lack was most keenly felt in the mighty choruses that conclude each section.
As to the flexibility of the tiger, "flexible" can denote "tractable" and "yielding to influence," which is what one finds in prelapsarian beasts, who graciously yielded to human agency and desire. (Postlapsarian tigers are considerably less "flexible" in this regard: just ask Siegfried and Roy.)

Axel Feldheim said...

It is true that everything McGegan does tends to be sprightly & jovial. It's pity there are no prelapsarian fauna around. Perhaps the librettist could have said "tractable tiger." It has the same number of syllables.

Civic Center said...

I have a cat named Tiger and he's definitely "flexible." Agree with David Lasson about the sprightliness/grandeur tradeoff at PBO, but I'd much rather hear the former than the latter, particularly since grandeur can get so dull unless it really is perfectly grand. (Helmuth Rilling and the San Francisco Symphony put me into a coma with their grandeur in this music ten years ago, and I didn't make it past the first intermission.)

Axel Feldheim said...

Well, cats are definitely flexible, no doubt about it. I'm disappointed that Haydn did not set the horse's neigh to music, though.

I know that I've heard The Creation at the Symphony, so it must have been that Rilling performance. I don't actually remember anything about it, so perhaps you are right that one can be both grand and boring. I specifically wanted to attend this performance because I hoped that McGegan's sprightliness would be good match for Haydn. And it was!

David Lasson said...

I fear you guys might be confusing grandeur with ponderousness. I am particularly sensitive to this distinction because of the bad press endured by my favorite composer of symphonies, Bruckner. His works are indeed ponderous in routine performance--and indeed grand in proper ones.
But back to the matter at hand: A performance of The Creation that lacks grandeur is just as disappointing as a ponderous one--though hardly the same thing; they are, however, both misreadings of this complex and multifaceted score--and as such, equally open to just criticism.