Dallas — One of Joseph Haydn’s recognized masterpieces, the oratorio The Creation (1798, Hob. XXI:2) was performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on their final subscription weekend of the 2018-19 season. The performance was led by British conductor Matthew Halls an all-hands-on-deck affair with the full orchestra, entire Dallas Symphony Chorus (led by Joshua Habermann) and three able soloists. In all, it was predictably sublime. The fullness, richness and versatility of the orchestra was in ample display. The choral sound filled the hall to the rafters with crisp entrances and tonality, if not perfect diction or dynamic subtlety. The three soloists, soprano Carolyn Sampson, lyric tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Joshua Hopkins were exquisite in tone and quality, not only in their own recitatives and arias but especially in the duets and trios that are the hallmarks of this surprising piece.
The enduring mystery of The Creation, wildly popular in its day (no fewer than 70 performances are documented during Haydn’s lifetime in Vienna alone) and a mainstay of symphonic calendars through the middle decades of the last century, is now relatively forgotten it is in the current repertoire. This performance is the first by the DSO since 1986, while it is difficult to estimate the number of Messiahs, Israels in Egypt or Elijahs that have been performed in that 30-year interval.
The legend of The Creation is that Haydn, residing in a self-imposed exile in London following the death of his long-term patron, attended a Handel Festival at Westminster Abbey and was moved and inspired to create his own massive biblical work. The piece took more than a year to complete, a far longer span than many of his other works, and apparently consumed time, energy and faith like no other work. The result is spectacular in every sense of the word — a festival of sound and poetry. But, despite the inspiration of Handel’s oratorios, The Creation shares little with those works except the scope and size of the performing group. Haydn took the format that he heard and modernized it with the wonderful nuanced touches that fill all of his compositions. For instance, the work begins with the most polite and mannerly depiction of Chaos imaginable. The stateliness and order of the music sound less like a formless void and more like a well-heeled audience filing into their concert stalls. The only hint of unruliness is a playful interplay between the trombone and the trilling flutes and only a minor accompaniment to the first recitative lends any sense of omen to the scene. This bubbles through the solo into a brief choral passage that famously erupts into a brilliant major chord on “And there was light” — a true Haydn moment.
The work is remarkable for its variety. Haydn seems to have enjoyed the different settings that he could bring to each day of the creation — the turbulence of the weather with thundering tympani, dense strings for the raging flood waters and finally a sweet staccato for snow fall; the word painting and lyrical effervescence of melody and ornamentation when depicting the plants and later the birds in arias; the delightful and playful imitation of fish and beasts written with a whimsy that Handel’s oratorios do not display; and in the stately, march like quality of the rising of the sun followed by the gentle, shy and surreptitious advent of the moon.
The Creation provides the composer with a canvas on which to create a remarkable variety of styles and tones, each recapped by a trio and chorus to end each day’s movement. The piece builds in wonder and intensity until at the very end of Part Two with the inevitable creation of man, announced by the chorus functioning as a narrative choir of angels in a resplendent “Hallelujah!” A third part is given over to Adam and Eve (sung by the same soloists who sang the angels Raphael and Gabriel) working through an overlong but emotionally essential dedication of praise to the Creator, the succinct statement of Haydn’s fervent belief. Yet it should be noted that Haydn’s oratorio leaves Eve and Adam happily singing in the Garden — a reminder of the composer’s humanism and Masonic roots.
The DSO’s performance on Friday night emphasized all these high points with aplomb. The only problem lay in the tendency for this (and all orchestras) to treat early classical works with too much subtlety. Parts of the performance felt detached and distant which may have been an attempt to capture the courtly nature of the time, if not the music. It might be this enforced mannered and imperturbable quality and the tendency to treat it as an extension of Handel’s baroque that has led to The Creation’s relative anonymity. But Haydn’s oratorio is anything but courtly. It is funny, powerful, evocative and immediate — the very traits that makes Haydn one of the most approachable and beloved of the so-called classical composers. Nuanced and entertaining performances like this by the DSO can only help bring the work back to the prominence it once enjoyed and which it surely deserves.