Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at Carnegie Hall

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Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Joseph Haydn, Die Schöpfung

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Artistic Director and Conductor
Carnegie Hall, Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Monteverdi Choir
Lucy Crowe, Soprano
Sophie Karthäuser, Soprano
James Gilchrist, Tenor
Vuyani Mlinde, Bass
Matthew Rose, Bass

A weekend’s concert-going, in which this splendid performance of Haydn’s choral masterpiece was followed by one of Leon Botstein’s “Classics Declassified” concerts on Beethoven’s First Symphony, created a mini-festival devoted to the fecund influence of Gottfried, the Baron van Swieten, with Johann Peter Salomon, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in enthusiastic, if occasionally fractious attendance at both, reminding us at how closely linked London and Vienna, the two great musical centers of the 1790’s, actually were.

Even I was not quite prepared for the eager crowd that packed the lobby of Carnegie Hall in anticipation of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s appearance with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Not only has the orchestra he founded established itself as one of the most admired period instrument orchestras, he himself has built a reputation as one of the the most insightful and exciting interpreters of a repertory which includes Byrd, Monteverdi, and Handel, as well as Berlioz, Brahms, and Britten. As his international reputation grew, over twenty years ago, he infused historically informed musicianship with a most welcome liveliness and sense of drama. Today, he continues to lead his musicians and his audiences along his far-reaching path of discovery.

As his extremely broad, but tightly focused (sic!) interpretation of the orchestral introduction depicting chaos, I was struck by the distinct sound of the ORR in the Carnegie Hall acoustic. Both strings and winds were present and full of body, but they were bathed in a gleaming reverberance which gave the orchestra a smoothness, even a sumptuousness, one doesn’t often hear from period groups. Throughout the evening I was constantly reminded of the sheer beauty of the the sound. Carnegie Hall thrives on a full house, and it proved especially hospitable to Sir John’s orchestra, chorus, and soloists, although I occasionally noted a blurring of the lines in the choral fugues in Part I.

From the powerful but ambiguous octaves of C which begin the work, as different parts of the orchestra intervene with disparate tonal suggestions which eventually guide the key towards C minor and the dark chords which provide the foundation for the Archangel Raphael’s simple narrative of God’s first creation, light and its separation from the dark, announced by the blazing C Major chords of the chorus’ hushed anticipatory words, the incisive, bold gestures of the orchestra evoked Beethoven’s fractious presence more vividly than is usual. In this introduction, Haydn, ever keen to be at the forefront, reacts to the irritant of the cocky young fellow from Bonn and surpasses even the slow introductions to his London symphonies.

Here we enjoyed our first hearing of the brilliantly selected and carefully prepared soloists in the South African bass Vuyani Mlinde’s magnificent Raphael and James Gilchrist’s joyful, but fully conscious Uriel. Mlinde’s highly individual voice is centered on a dark core with glowing, even brilliant overtones in its mid-range. He has an impressive lower reach of mellifluous richness, enlivened by a fiery edge. His grave, almost prophet-like bearing gave a most effective human representation of his instrument. Gilchrist’s felicitously integrated, robust tenor and his meticulous, intelligent phrasing and diction were perfectly suited to his role as the messenger of the more joyful, forward-looking aspects of God’s creation, which, in Haydn’s oratorio, moves us not so much as a manifestation of the Divine, as for its own excellent qualities, summed up in Uriel’s serene C Major aria, describing the qualities of God’s supreme creation, man:

Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan,
Mit Schönheit, Stärk’ und Mut begabt,
Gen Himmel aufgerichtet steht der Mensch,
Ein Mann und König der Natur.
Die breit gewölbt’ erhabne Stirn
Verkünd’t der Weisheit tiefen Sinn,
Und aus dem hellen Blicke strahlt
Der Geist, des Schöpfers Hauch und Ebenbild.

A third archangel, Gabriel, was sung with vivid phrasing and color by Sophie Karthäuser, whose brilliant, but fully fleshed soprano suited her role as a heavenly admirer of God’s creation. Her attention to detail and lively engagement were admirable. Ornaments were plentiful in the solo parts , and always elegantly conceived and executed.

Sir John constructed Haydn’s edifice with blocks of contrasting tempi. Slow movements were very broad and often flexible in pace in a way less apparent in the fast movements. As I mentioned, I thought some of the choral movements, for example the fugue in “Stimmt an die Saiten…” (10), when taken at such a quick pace, to be a trifle blurred in Carnegie Hall’s generous reverberation, but, in his defense, it is marked Vivace, and is introduced by a series of exuberant exhortations. Later, as if to correct this, Gardiner seemed to take special care to maintain clarity in the chorus, and he succeeded, even without slackening his tempo. The Monteverdi Choir sang impeccably, with light, focussed textures and sharp articulation. Each section was full of its own character and color.

After the break, soprano Lucy Crowe and bass Matthew Rose appeared to sing the parts of Eve and Adam. Ms. Crowe’s luxuriant voice, both full and bright, suited her role as the first woman, and Mr. Rose applied his rich bottom and attractive top to his rather earnest portrayal of Adam, which relaxed as his character began to enjoy the beauties of creation—above all, his companion. On a musical level, he was most likely responding to Crowe’s warm singing. James Gilchrist continued in his lively way as the archangelic narrator-commentator.

The extraordinary strength of the soloists and their aptness for their individual parts put them in the forefront. Sir John, without subduing in any way the color and energy of the ORR’s playing, was an assiduously attentive accompanist. Otherwise his approach, as mentioned, made the most of Haydn’s dramatic contrasts and treated the score with the the most precise and polished playing and choral ensemble. The only occasionally conflicting ideals of clarity and rich acoustics brought out the sheer beauty of Haydn’s writing. The focus was on that, rather than on overwhelming the audience with massive choruses.

There can be no doubt that Die Schöpfung is a religious work by a devout composer. As Nicholas Temperley has observed, Haydn considered his composition a religious act, providing his audiences with access to the sort of comfort only faith and communion with the Divinity can offer. The text and music of Die Schöpfung owes its genesis to two quite different cultures: a rationalistic Anglican England and Catholic Austria, as well as to Freemasonry, in some degree. Even in English scientific circles, the majority of thinkers would not have seen a contradiction between the Biblical fable of a creation by the hand of God in six days and current ideas about nature. It is a tribute to Haydn’s genius that we can enter his world so easily and completely through his oratorio, although our views of the subject have changed so much.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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