The libretto of Haydn’s Creation has something of a storied past, starting out in English, then being shortened, translated into German, set by Haydn, and then translated back into English. While The Creation surely is one of Haydn’s masterpieces, this translation of the German text into English by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, is awkward, to say the least. While the good baron may have had nothing but good intentions, his English was somewhat lacking. Still, the English version of The Creation is performed often enough, and it was this English version the Oslo Philharmonic and conductor Harry Bicket performed on Thursday. It served yet again as proof that the English can have the English version to themselves.

Harry Bicket © Richard Haughton
Harry Bicket
© Richard Haughton

Conductor Harry Bickett conducted the Oslo Philharmonic for the first time, and brought a light, elegant sound to the orchestra. Tempi were generally on the fast side, something that worked very well in general. It did, however, leave the opening “Representation of Chaos” feeling a bit rushed and unsettled, which, come to think of it, was not entirely inappropriate. The strings played with the slightest hint of vibrato, which added warmth to the sound, but still kept the strings sounding lean and agile. Generally, the orchestra was very well balanced, but there were times I wished for just more sound. I also found that the loud chord describing heavy beasts treading the ground in Raphael’s aria “Now heav’n in fullest glory shone” taken rather too unceremoniously and not loud enough, especially lacking bass trombone. The harpsichord continuo was generally quite unobtrusive, being merely a harmonic background for the singers.

The three soloists were all new to the Oslo Philharmonic and were unfortunately something of a mixed bag. Soprano Malin Christensson stepped in for an indisposed Miah Persson and started out the evening sounding rather uncomfortable. Her voice had a tendency of disappearing whenever there were fast runs, sometimes rendering her completely inaudible. She hit her stride by the second and third parts, and her final duet with Christopher Purves’ Adam, “Grateful consort”, was really rather lovely. Bass Christopher Purves started out sounding a bit hoarse in the opening recitative, but showed considerable command of the text and wonderful diction throughout. Even though some of the arias sounded a bit high for him, he was in good voice, with a rich, dark tone and wonderful low notes. He also seemed to be enjoying himself onstage, seemingly singing along with the bass line whenever he was seated. Tenor Allan Clayton had a bright, ringing sound and navigated the music with ease. His many arias were exciting to listen to, even though I got the impression at times that he was merely singing the notes.

The Oslo Philharmonic Chorus sang very well. Apart from an unfortunate tenor incident during the first fugue entry, “Despairing cursing rage”, the choir sang with a homogenous tone, and despite their size, managed to maintain the transparency during the more polyphonic episodes. They were, however, rather too soprano-heavy, and as is so often the case, lacking in male singers, something that led to them often being overpowered by the women. Even though the choir was quite large, I wished for more sound at times, as louder dynamics had a tendency of blurring together. Then again, the Oslo Concert House is hardly ideal for choral music.

After something of a bumpy start, the Oslo Philharmonic’s performance of Haydn’s The Creation eventually became a very enjoyable one. Just a shame it wasn’t in German.