In the beginning – retold…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

May 12, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Whether you believe in the Big Bang or the Bible when deciding how everything started, Haydn’s The Creation stands inarguably as one of the most outstanding musical works of the 18th Century.

It also ranks among the greatest oratorios ever written. Thus it was with eager anticipation that I took my seat in the Sydney Opera House last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Masaaki Suzuki

Masaaki Suzuki

As part of the APT Master Series, the SSO was joined by the massive forces of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, along with three distinguished soloists: Lydia Teuscher (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), and Neal Davies (baritone).  Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki and choir musical director, Brett Weymark, worked the batons.

Make no mistake; The Creation is no listening doddle. Sung in German (although the last SSO performance in 2009 let audience and performers off with English) it lasts for over an hour and a half, broken by a breather after two of the three parts. A percentage of concertgoers duck its performance, leaving empty seats because they find it too taxing. Haydn said of it: “I was never so religious as during the composition of The Creation.

Despite the implied solemnity, its first public performance in 1799 was the equivalent of a sell-out pop concert today. Police were called in to control the exuberant Viennese crowd. The work quickly became a hot European favorite and augmented the already feverish popularity of Haydn’s vast musical output – especially his symphonies.

The Creation takes its text not only from the Bible books of Genesis and Psalms but also dips into Milton’s Paradise Lost. After an overture, which conveys a picture of pre-creation chaos, it’s structure presents the six days in which God created the earth and stars. The days account for parts one and two of the work – each of which drew applause from the audience and acknowledgement from the musicians. After interval, part three devoted itself to the Garden of Eden and its two human occupants who continually celebrate the place in which God has set them down. They tell of plump fruit, the sweet smell of flowers and the delight of passing hours in each other’s company. We don’t have to deal with upcoming trouble over apples and serpents before Haydn declares Amen!

Rather than the ageing Haydn trying to curry favour with God – whom he probably expected to meet soon – The Creation is a compositional feat first and a religious devotion second. If you removed the text, the music would stand aloft in its own right.

The three soloists were an excellent choice, each having a voice and technique ideal for oratorio singing, where one must compete with choir and orchestra. Singing separately or in combination, they made a beautifully blended team. During the six days of creation Lydia Teuscher took the role of Gabriel and then switched to Eve for the Garden of Eden where the sweetness of her voice enhanced the character. Allan Clayton with youth and whiskers on his side sang Uriel while Neal Davies doubled as Raphael and Adam. Although Davies sang superbly, Clayton looked more like an authentic Adam.

Under Suzuki the SSO was in fine voice, especially in the flute department where there were many magic passages. I did wonder about placing the timpani on the square leg boundary instead of its usual place in the back row. But since the timpani is continually busy in this work its visibility and immediacy was a plus.

One of the curiosities of The Creation is Haydn’s inclusion of a fourth soloist right at the end when everybody is giving their all in a final sprint to the triumphant finish. A young lady detached herself from the choir, joined the three soloists at the front of the stage, sang five insignificant bars and returned to the choir. Papa, what were you thinking?

And speaking of the choir, to me, it won the night with its power, articulation and tonal variation. The most uplifting climactic moments were all choir backed. Who will forget the giant outpouring on the ‘first day’ as the choir sang “and God said: Let there by light! And there was light.”

While The Creation may not appear to be everybody’s preferred musical journey, there is a lot to love once you’re aboard. The music is never repetitive or boring. Rather it is continually inventive, sometimes humorous  – such as imitations of animals arriving in the Garden of Eden –  and often effervescent and uplifting.

SSO Opera House concert 11 May 2016

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.











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