Since HIP (or historically informed performance) has become increasingly the domain of the burgeoning specialist ensembles and orchestras in the last five decades or so, symphony orchestras around the world have programmed 18th-century or earlier repertoire less and less. There are exceptions, of course; Mozart concertos, as an example, are still being regularly performed by modern orchestras and their visiting artists and also, distinguished experts (mostly conductors) of early music performance are invited by modern orchestras with some regularity and often notable success.

Masaaki Suzuki © Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki
© Marco Borggreve

Masaaki Suzuki’s visit to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra represented such a crossover visit. The founder and musical director of the Bach Collegium Japan made his debut in Sydney with Joseph Haydn’s oratorio, Die Schöpfung (The Creation). The title was given both in German and in English in the programme booklet, as indeed Die Schöpfung is a genuinely bilingual composition. Although its first performance took place in Vienna in 1798, the composer was hoping for a London première before long, a realistic expectation based on his substantial success in England in the 1790s. The ubiquitous Baron Gottfried van Swieten, patron and supporter to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others, prepared the libretto in both languages. Evidently, the prose of his German version fits the music better and this version was used in the concert as well.

Following the instructions of a conductor who represents a very different performing style could conceivably pull an orchestra out of its communal comfort zone; there was, however, no indication of any unease in this performance. In fact, the SSO excelled in providing a sound which was without fail flexible and transparent; it provided a silky backdrop when the soloists were singing and sounded robust but never overwhelming in the orchestral tuttis. The musicians didn’t change their instruments, only the way they played on them, proving that, for example, even without any vibrato a pleasing tone colour can be achieved. The only concession to period instruments was the inclusion of a sensitively played fortepiano, as the sole accompanying instrument to the recitatives. This was unusual: normally, at least a cello is included in playing the continuo part, a standard practice that not only period orchestras but even Herbert von Karajan’s venerable 50-year-old recording observes.

The three solo parts of the oratorio were sung by visiting artists Lydia Teuscher, Allan Clayton and Neal Davies. Their collective performance was made especially appealing by their ability to become a part of the musical texture, to work with the orchestra as equal partners. As a result, they sang in a light and malleable voice which sounded lovely and blended in with the general style of the performance perfectly. Their trio with chorus “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” taking a bow towards Mozart’s Magic Flute was especially spirited.

Of the three of them, Lydia Teuscher stood out not only by virtue of her excellent technique but also as she gave emotive depth to the characters of Gabriel in Parts I and II and Eva in Part III in her finely nuanced performance. Neal Davies’ recitative about the whales and “every creature that moveth” (Und Gott schuf große Walfische) was made particularly impressive by the multi-coloured sonorities of the divided lower strings. Davies himself provided perhaps the most memorable single moment of the evening by finishing his Part II recitativo (Gleich öffnet sich der Erder Schoß) on the low D, an octave lower than the one in the score – a note unattainably low for most bass singers. The final duet between Adam and Eve (Clayton and Teuscher) was a testament not only to the solid ensemble of the two singers but also to their jovial camaraderie and sense of humour.

As in a Greek drama, much of the commentary in The Creation is provided by the chorus. Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, eminently well prepared by their Brett Weymark, proved to be an equal partner to the professional partnership, despite the fact that the members of the choir attend rehearsals only after they fulfil the duties of their daytime jobs.

The evening’s success was ultimately in the hands of Masaaki Suzuki. He is not one of those conductors whose movements are aimed not only at the orchestra but also at the entertainment of the audience. His beat is reassuringly precise, his gestures economical but never miserly. He shows everything to the musicians that is important to him, and this makes the music breathe and flow. The fertilising influence of such a master of historical performance practice could well expand the repertoire and areas of interest of a major orchestra like the Sydney Symphony.