It seems somewhat incongruous that the British Choral tradition is so embedded in our musical culture, yet until the early 20th century the repertoire so beloved by our rafts of choral societies was composed by continental Europeans. Nevertheless, these composers often drew inspiration and patronage from our shores. This is particularly true of The Creation, written in the late 1790s after Haydn witnessed the popularity of the grand oratorios being performed in London during that time. We know he visited St Paul’s Cathedral during these visits, which added a nice sense of occasion to the City of London Festival’s opening night performance.

Sarah Tynan © Chris Gloag
Sarah Tynan
© Chris Gloag

Aesthetically, St Paul’s was a wonderful setting for the concert, the vast dome, which encompassed the closest seats, felt like a replica of the world that Haydn paints with such wonder. Acoustically however, it was an extremely difficult environment for the large choral and orchestra forces. Although I had the advantage of being seated close to the orchestra, I was still surprised at how well the sound was controlled. As a regular concertgoer in London, confronted with the relatively dry acoustic of the major London concert halls, the warm glow the vast space gave to the sound, particularly the brass, seemed to justify the occasional lack of clarity. In fact, at times it enhanced the effect. The close and dissonant harmonies of the chaos Haydn depicts at the start seemed more chaotic and muddled than usual due to the reverberation yet this made the major key resolution and the glorious cry of “light” even more miraculous. This was particularly true again during Haydn’s radiant depiction of sunrise; as the music crescendoed and the chromatic tension was resolved, the sound felt as though it had risen, metaphorically, like the sun to illuminate the building with an added profundity that is much harder to achieve in a concert hall.

The soloists managed an admirable crispness. Soprano Sarah Tynan sang with a wonderful purity that aided the intelligibility of the text, and Neal Davies provided characterful bass solos throughout. Whilst they sang clearly above the orchestra, there was still something quite chamber-like about their performances and I’m not sure how well their voices would have carried to the back. Tenor Robert Murray adopted a more operatic sound, although an appropriately Mozartian one that felt suitable for the demands of the venue.

The words were frequently impossible to comprehend, especially in the fugal choral passages. However, Baron von Swieten’s English text is notoriously clunky at times, and Haydn’s programmatic orchestral depictions of the natural world are so vivid, this did not lessen the impact.

The LSO Choir was an impressive force, on the whole keeping time with the orchestra despite the complexities of doing so with such complicated acoustics. The degree of dynamic variation achieved was astounding, and fortunately in the complicated fugues the intentional chaos of the opening didn’t return.

The entire performance felt special. In a less well-known work, more clarity would have been desirable, but it was enjoyable to experience such a familiar piece in such exquisite surroundings, and the tone of enchantment and optimism that runs throughout the work was perfectly enhanced by the idiosyncratic acoustic. Having wondered how they would pull it off, the result was a pleasant surprise. 

****1