Richard Eaton Singers
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Ratzlaff (conductor)
Leslie Ann Bradley (soprano), Alexander Hajek (baritone), John Tessier (tenor)Winspear, March 31

Haydn: The Creation (sing in English)

It’s always good to hear Haydn’s The Creation. It may not now have quite the popularity it commanded half a century ago, but it’s difficult not to be stirred when that great C major chord announces God has let the light go forth, or to appreciate the creation of birds and animals as Haydn echoes their songs in the orchestra, or to respond to Adam and Eve singing their duet of love and marvel. The work is untrammelled by the events in the Garden of Eden, which we may know are coming, but which Haydn carefully avoids. It is ultimately about the joy and wonder of the world around us.

It’s not just an appealing work, but it’s also interesting musically. When Haydn completed it in 1798, Vienna had just been in panic at a possible invasion by the Turks, Mozart was already dead (so Haydn had had the chance to hear all his main operas), and Beethoven had started on his successful compositional and performance career – it’s all to easy to forget how long Haydn lived, as we usually think of him as the precursor to both those composers.

Consequently, The Creation has its feet in quite a number of musical antecedents. The very idea of an oratorio was essentially passé in continental Europe by 1798, though not in England, where the tradition of Handel was still very much alive (and appreciated by Mozart, who arranged a ‘modernized’ version of The Messiah) – and, of course, it was a tradition that that England would continue to champion throughout the 19th Century, commissioning works from composers like Mendelsohn and Dvořák.

That tradition provides the more traditional elements, such as the recitatives. But there’s something of the spirit of Goethe’s new Romanitism in the opening, with touches of the Mannheim Sturm und Drang musical style. And the shade of Mozart can also be heard, with echoes of Cosi fan Tutte in the orchestral setting of the trio (No.18) describing the wonders of the fifth day of creation, or in the trio (25a), as the Lord feeds each living soul. The wonderful duet between Adam and Eve is pure Haydn, showing he had lost none of his original genius.

The subject, too, rather breaks away from the oratorio tradition, for it is less a musical realization of Biblical events than a kind of pastoral, a celebration of nature as much as God, through the events of the Creation in the words of the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost. There’s really very little in the oratorio repertoire with this kind of tone during the 19th century – not until Mahler and Gurre-lieder does that kind of big choral appreciation of nature reappear.

The Richard Eaton Singers’ performance at the Winspear on Friday evening (March 31), with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra conducted by the choir’s Musical Director of 35 years, Leonard Ratzlaff, also had a traditional base. The choir is a very large one, in the tradition of the symphonic choirs of both the 19th and 20th centuries. The result is a very big sound, emphasized here by the orchestra: although Haydn uses an orchestra that is large for a classical work, the presence here of five double-bases gave a bass-heavy colour, and the over-amplification of the harpsichord continuo added to the sense that a lower overall colour had been chosen, a little at the expense of the detail of the higher instruments, such as the woodwind (which included some fine flute playing here).

Ratzlaff’s interpretation, too, belongs to an older tradition, with rather slow, emphatic tempi, that in part reflects the very large chorus (inevitably less flexible than a smaller group), but is in contrast to modern practices that take music of the pre-Romantic era at faster tempi.

The result is perhaps a matter of taste. The virtue of such an approach is the scale of the sound, especially in the grander moments; the downside is that some detail is lost, and passages sometimes cry out for a more sprightly approach. The choir, though, do revel in the overall concept, and their precision and discipline in this performance was commendable – they are a tighter choir than when I last heard them last year. Occasionally, in spite of their size, the sheer volume is not quite as great as might be expected in the grandest passages, but the more I hear choirs in the Winspear, the more I am convinced that this is a result of the hall’s acoustics rather than any lack of power in the choir. This was a committed performance.

The trio of soloists (joined by one of the choir, Janet Smith, for the final quartet) was an illustrious one. Canadian baritone Alexander Hajek (the Baron in Edmonton Opera’s recent production of The Merry Widow) has the kind of powerful lower range that is ideal for Raphael (and Adam), exemplary diction –this performance was sung in English – and an operatic approach that brought out some of the dramatic elements. What was less successful were his humorous gestures, that elicited laughs from the audience, such as his clawing when singing of the lion, as if he were Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, showing how well he would do in the part of the lion.

I can understand the impulse, but it was inappropriate. The Creation is not a comedy. Haydn celebrates all creation in this work – it is one of its great achievements – and Hajek’s actions rather denigrated some of that creation, in an age when we are beginning to recognize that all creation deserves our respect and honour.

Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley brought a rich, darker soprano to the work, that entirely suited it. But in this performance there was a lack of a smooth progression through the range, that hampered the overall effect, and the clarity of her diction did not match her fellow soloists.

How lucky we are, though, that John Tessier has curtailed his international career to spend more family time in Edmonton – the opera houses of the world’s loss is our gain. There is something very special about his tenor voice: there is a colour, a kind of tiny musical accent, to his sound that is entirely his. John Vickers and Jussi Björling had something similar, with the result that their voices are instantly recognizable. His tenor is also attractively lyrical, and his performance here was a pleasure to listen to, both in terms of interpreting the piece, and for the sheer pleasure of listening to lovely singing.

The Richard Eaton Singers are due to tour the UK later this year, and their next concert, at the McDougall Church on Saturday, June 10, features some of the music (including Canadian works) that they will be singing in cathedrals in Edinburgh, Durham, York, and Oxford.

In the meantime, what a pleasure that they reminded us how good Haydn’s Creation is.