Brilliant, rewarding performance of The Creation from NZSO and Orpheus Choir

The Creation (Sung in English) by Haydn

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, with Madeleine Pierard – soprano, Robin Tritschler – tenor, Jonathan Lemalu – bass

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 29 August 2014

This concert was billed as one where “Haydn brings forth magnificence from silence as he retells the creation of the world, taking inspiration from the Bible’s Book of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Haydn once confessed, ‘I want to write a work that will give permanent fame to my name in the world’. With The Creation, he has certainly achieved this.”

This was the work that provided the striking platform on which this performance was built, guided by renowned Baroque and Enlightenment interpreter Nicholas McGegan, with contributions from outstanding soloists and the exceptional talents of the NZ Symphony Orchestra. There was a most informative pre-concert talk from Peter Walls which presaged an evening of rich musical rewards.

The Creation was met with great enthusiasm when first heard in both Britain and Germany (Haydn set the libretto in both languages). Over time it lost some ground in the fickle swings of the performance fashion stakes, but more recently it has enjoyed wide popularity again. Astonishingly this concert was announced as the first ever full performance of the work by the NZSO.

The opening introduction is an orchestral Representation of Chaos on the First Day of creation, and its elusive, shifting tonalities and stark dynamic contrasts were explored to wonderful dramatic effect by the orchestra, followed by Lemalu’s evocative vocal painting of the formless universe in the first, almost whispered, words of the archangel Raphael. The blinding arrival of Light from the heavens and the panic stricken flight of hell’s black spirits was wonderfully portrayed by both Robin Tritschler as the archangel Uriel and the large force of choristers, who hurled themselves into their first dramatic number to stunning effect.

The Second Day of creation was laid out in recitative by Lemalu as he painted a musical canvas of amazing breadth, ranging from the frightful rolling of “awful thunders” to the most “light and flaky snow” which one could almost sense alighting on one’s hair. Then came the first entry of soprano Madeleine Pierard with Gabriel’s spectacular celebratory aria, supported by the massed angelic chorus. Her clarity of notes and diction at speed, and beautifully shaped phrases, were quite breath-taking and set a technical and musical standard that she maintained unwaveringly for the rest of the performance.

There were many other special moments in the first four days of creation which comprise Part One of the work, spanning the formation of the cosmos and planet Earth. Not only the soloists and chorus but the orchestra too exuded a joy in the privilege of performing this masterpiece – the players obviously relished the wonderful pictorial opportunities in Haydn’s score, and not only the more obvious ones assigned to the upper woodwind. The contrabass line depicting rivers flowing across the open plains “in serpent error” was deliciously rich and sinuous, and the section made the most of this rare melodic treat, as they painted the scene in tandem with Lemalu’s evocative description.

Part Two of the oratorio spans the creation of the animal kingdom, including humans Adam and Eve.  The emergence of sea life, land forms and the creatures of the air gave Haydn great opportunities for pictorial and onomatopoeic writing, which he lavished not only on the soloists and choir, but almost more so on the instrumentalists. His amazing variety of creative melody and evocative sound effects were swooped on with glee by the players who had a real night out on the musical and technical opportunities they were offered.

The solo obbligato conversations with the soloists were a delight, and the percussion and brass had a field day in the rousing choruses. The choir was very impressive in their clean fugal lines and exemplary diction even at a galloping allegro, and their sheer power in the forte tuttis was extraordinary.

There were some moments in the work where, from our seats in the gallery, the male solo voices singing at a piano dynamic did not clearly penetrate the very considerable orchestral forces. And I similarly craved more bass weight in the vocal trios. But Madeleine Pierard, with the advantage of the upper register, consistently floated through or over the orchestra apparently quite effortlessly, never losing the satiny timbre of her voice at even the topmost pitches.

Part Three of the work is a pastoral idyll depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the first apple is plucked and they are catapulted into “The Fall”. Their sights are initially focused on praising the glories of Creation, supported by full hearted contributions from the choir. Lemalu and Pierard made the most of every musical opportunity offered by the poetic libretto and evocative melodies that here span everything from the “rosy mantle” of “the morning young and fair”, the brilliance of the sun and moon, the “dusky mists and dewy streams”, “purling fountains” and all the “living souls” that people the new planet.

Then the “happy pair” turn to one another to express their mutual bliss. The writing builds to nothing short of a love duet, albeit within an oratorio, and it was masterfully choreographed by the duo. They opened with almost shy, hesitant overtures , but as each caught an answering light in the other’s eye, they became ever more daring in their protestations. At the end they teetered on a knife edge between ravished fulfilment and sentimentality, but they judged it to absolute perfection in both body language and voice, giving a finale that brought the house down.

It was a real privilege to be at this performance, and so pleasing to see that two of the three excellent soloists were New Zealanders – an all too rare occurrence in my view. The orchestra and chorus were brilliant, and under Nicholas McGegan’s inspiring and creative guidance the audience was treated to a most rewarding evening of music making.


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