Was that really the Czech Philharmonic playing at the Rudolfinum in Prague on Thursday night? If you closed your eyes it sounded like a dedicated Baroque ensemble serving up a thundering version of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (The Creation). The energy coming off the stage was in keeping with the new vitality in the orchestra since David Mareček took over as general manager in early 2011. Formerly the director of the Brno Philharmonic, Mareček was instrumental in luring Maestro Jiří Bĕlohlávek back as chief conductor starting in the 2012-13 season, which ended with a free open-air concert featuring American singer Bobby McFerrin. Later this month the orchestra leaves for a seven-concert tour of South Korea and China, then returns to Prague for a mid-June date with Valery Gergiev.

Jiří Bělohlávek © Václav Jirásek
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Václav Jirásek

Amid all the marketing and glitz, the Czech Philharmonic has not neglected the basics. It slimmed down to chamber orchestra size for Haydn’s oratorio, making room upstage for the three vocalists: German soprano Ruth Ziesak, German tenor Daniel Behle and Polish bass-baritone Daniel Kotlinski. The Prague Philharmonic Choir filled the organ loft seats directly up behind the soloists.

Working from the phone book-sized score, Bĕlohlávek started the music as gently as ripples on a pond, hitting the sudden fortissimo on the last word of the choir’s “Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht!” with a blend of power and lyricism that set the tone for the entire evening. The players were not using period instruments, but the sound was so carefully crafted that it had the elegance of early music, with airy strings, bright woodwinds, burnished horns and a single percussionist adding just enough pop. Several passages for three flutes soared beautifully, so much so that Bĕlohlávek had the musicians stand for extra applause afterward.

Bass singers typically get the least amount of time in vocal works, but in The Creation the dual bass role of Raphael the archangel and Adam takes the lead, and Kotlinski was commanding in both. He is better in the baritone range, sometimes fading in the lowest registers or disappearing altogether. Otherwise he was solemn and steady, an anchor as the main narrative voice and a solid bottom for the trio.

Ziesak has a voice that is both sweet and strong, with a lovely rounded quality. It was not particularly clear or expressive in the early going, though as the archangel Gabriel she delivered a captivating interplay with the flutes in the section celebrating the creation of plants. Her voice got stronger over the course of the piece, finally dominating the late sections in which, as Eve, she prays with Adam and the chorus. In particular, her operatic love duet with Kotlinski in the concluding passages was entrancing.

Behle as the archangel Uriel did not make much of an impression. He was colorless next to Ziesak and Kotlinski, even in the one showcase opportunity for the tenor, the second-section aria “Mit Würď und Hoheit angetan.” Behle is a well-regarded lieder singer, so it was a surprising showing. But for whatever reason, Thursday was not his night.

The chorus was, in a word, sensational. The sound was powerful without being overwhelming, and positively shimmered with vocal shadings. If there was a soundtrack for the actual creation, this was it – a heavenly host celebrating in an incredibly rich, colorful cascade of sound pulsing with radiant energy.

For all that, Bĕlohlávek was the real star of the evening. He showed a brilliant understanding of and feel for the material, set a buoyant tempo, paid close attention to detail and kept the sound perfectly balanced. The latter was perhaps the single most skillful feature of the evening. Building the elaborate mosaic of The Creation is challenging enough, but performing it without stepping on a single line of the singers is a masterwork. Another positive step in an increasingly impressive makeover.