If there were such a thing as a Fantasy Orchestral League, the combination of Sir Simon Rattle, one of the world’s most imaginative, outstanding conductors, and the quirky, creative Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) would definitively be one of my top choices. The additional forces of the Choir of the Enlightenment with soloists Sally Matthews, John Mark Ainsley and Peter Rose made for a majestic performance of Haydn’s greatest work, The Creation. As this was the final International Concert of the 2013/2014 season, it was clear, to borrow a biblical comparison, that the best wine was left till last.

Sir Simon Rattle © Mat Hennek
Sir Simon Rattle
© Mat Hennek

Composed when Haydn was 65 years old, The Creation was not only the apogee of a hugely successful career but “a real life expression of his gratitude for the love and gifts bestowed on him by God”. The programming of such a massive work poses an obvious challenge; to break or not to break? While the interval at the end of Part I (after the creation of the sun) was most welcome, it did break the tension which underpins all of this work. Written on Haydn’s return from his London visitation, the libretto was originally written in English and then translated into German. Tonight’s performance was sung in English, and both singers and audience appreciated its immediacy.

This is a work which abounds in grandiose choral climaxes and there is a risk, on an interpretative level, of reducing this composition to mere bombast. By revelling in the gentler sections, Rattle not only avoided this but managed to make the louder sections all the more powerful and compelling as a result. In the opening “God created Heaven and Earth”, as the dissonances and non-resolving cadences depicted the chaos, Rattle’s pose was almost frozen on the podium: conducting ultra-minimalist style. The result from the OAE was nothing short of magical: harmonies hovering in the air dissipating into dissonances; an amazing palette of dynamics which produced the quietest sound from an orchestra this size. The consequent explosion of the magnificent C major chord on the announcement of “Let there be light” visibly shook the audience.

The Choir of the Enlightenment proved to be as sensitive as the orchestra in following Rattle’s direction. Here too, the delicate vocal shading and the heartfelt expression of the choir impressed just as much as the impact of the big moments. The contrapuntal lines at the portrayal of Satan’s fall from grace and as “God made the Firmament” were crisply articulated while never once was the tuning at fault. In all of the fugues – and there are many in this work – the choir attacked them with joy and vigour, revelling in the complexities, always listening attentively to one another. The orchestra provided a supportive backing but never drowned out this tapestry of sound.

The three soloists made compelling contributions. Sally Matthews, who sang the part of the archangel Gabriel in the first two parts and then later as Eve (replacing Susan Gritton, who was unable to perform as scheduled). Despite the short notice, it was clear that Matthews was utterly familiar in her role. Gifted with a light, agile, lyrical voice, she showed herself at her best post interval. In the first half, the coloratura was a little thick, obscuring somewhat the words of her first solo in particular, “The marvellous work beholds amazed”. In the second section, she had relaxed sufficiently to give an exquisite rendition of “On mighty wings the Eagle proudly soars aloft”. As one might expect from the title of this aria, the eagle soared and so too did Matthews with pellucid melismas and effortless long notes. If I were to quibblle, she could have projected more when joined by the other two soloists.

Peter Rose gave an equally convincing rendition as the archangel Raphael and then subsequently as Adam. His is a rich, sonorous voice, blessed with scintillatingly clear diction. His tonal depictions of the animals, from bleating sheep to slippery worms, drew a few guffaws from the audience as he slithered down to the depths with a low D. Rose and Matthews imbued their love duet of Adam and Eve with a coquettishness that was most endearing.

While the enunciation of the words were not as clear as the other two soloists, Ainsley impressed with his pleasing tenor voice and the suggestive pause he inserted into his final recitative had Rattle looking at him in mock disbelief.

From cosmic chaos to prelapsarian idyll, this performance had it all. As Heaven and earth sang praise to the Lord in the final chorus, the sonic crescendo achieved by both choir and orchestra, coupled with the raw energy of Rattle was spine-tingling. An immediate and thoroughly merited standing ovation followed. What a blessing to witness such a creation!