Beyond the chorus “The heavens are telling” Haydn’s The Creation is not a work that is well known, nor often performed, at least not in comparison with other oratorios, particularly Handel’s Messiah. Yet it is a work that deserves respect, not just because of its length (three parts, sung in just under two hours). It was the only work in the concert given by the Box Hill Chorale, Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra and three soloists, conducted by Andrew Wailes (pictured).
All Saints Church, St Kilda, is an acoustically friendly venue, known for many years for its own choir comprising men and boys. But The Creation was well suited to a mixed group, having a warmth to it and contrasts which were best heard in such a choir. The opening orchestral introduction was called Representation of Chaos, but ironically was beautifully controlled by Wailes starting with a strong opening note. (The players had another solo focus in the Introduction to Part Three. Titled Morning, it was a pastorale in the oratorio tradition and allowed appreciation of this fine orchestra, whose support to the singers was vital.)
The soloists have an unusually important role in this work, with recitatives and arias outnumbering the choruses, and sometimes sung as part of a “conversation”, rather like the Chorus in Greek drama. Bass baritone Timothy Newton impressed in the dual roles of Raphael and Adam, which could be confusing if one was trying to follow the story through the work. However, Newton’s strong and resilient voice was sufficient to demand attention, whatever role he was playing. Tenor Douglas Kelly, as Uriel, made an early appearance, at times singing rather softly in his lowest register, but sensitive to the text. As Gabriel (and Eve) Sarah Ampil had both a pleasing voice and a good understanding of her words, delivering light and shade in her rendition of “And God said, I let the earth bring forth grass…” Ampil was to demonstrate a lovely clarity of tone, also delivering ornaments with apparent ease.
It took some time before the chorus was given a rousing chorus but with “Awake the harp” the choir was given a chance to show what it was made of. The sopranos were heard to greatest advantage to begin but all parts soon settled into the polyphony which was another feature of the work. Wales made sure that all players gave of their best, with the trumpets a lovely counterpoint to the main action.
The chorus “The heavens are telling” was reiterated three times before the choir and orchestra moved seamlessly into part two, a feature of which was Raphael’s recitative “And God created great whales”, its warmth enhanced by the gentle pace and sympathetic performance of the lower strings. After a rousing trio and chorus, “The Lord is great”, the second part was interrupted by an interval, and a welcome chance for the singers to catch their breath!
The second part of the concert then continued with no concessions made to the length of the work. Many recitatives and choruses were yet to come. Uriel’s important solo “And God created man” was a gentler moment, well delivered and accompanied by the harpsichord, played by Evan Creswell, whose continuo part was integral to the sound of the orchestra throughout the work.
And so The Creation progressed, including its own “Hallelujah chorus”! “Achieved is the glorious work” provided a vigorous chorale, followed by a lengthy and charming trio “On thee each living soul awaits”.
The final part, beginning with the pastorale, Morning, followed the pattern set by the previous parts, and was no less enjoyable for that. Adam and Eve, however, started a new “conversation”, interspersed with comments from the chorus. Although the singers had one very big chorus between two of these protracted exchanges, (“Hail bounteous Lord”), the final “Sing the Lord” was appropriately the biggest, combining the chorus and (rather inexplicably) a “quartet”. Even with just three soloists, the chorus and orchestra, under Wailes’ baton, provided just the big finish that this lengthy, complex work had demanded.
Certainly the audience was well satisfied and this reviewer was grateful for a fine introduction to a hitherto unknown work by a great master of the Classical period.