No performance is perfect and this rendition by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra of Haydn's The Creation was certainly no exception. Nevertheless, as a whole it seemed to dispel all reservations one had by simply being so life-affirming and generous that it is difficult to quibble. Haydn was inspired to pen The Creation while on tour in England where he heard performances of Handel's oratorios. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a veteran of the HIP movement such as Nicholas McGegan, this Handelian influence was to the fore in this performance. Many of the speeds were fleet without being rushed but he was not afraid to give the recitatives room to breathe. Contrasts of light and shade were played up to delightful effect and reminded us that there are few things more joyous and encouraging than these masterpieces of late Haydn. The original English libretto of The Creation is awkwardly written enough that the work is sometimes performed in German translation in English-speaking countries but McGegan fearlessly opted for the original text here. It was mostly negotiated successfully by soloists and choir, though one was still mystified by such phrases as “the large and arched front sublime of wisdom deep declares the seat”.

Robin Tritschler © Garreth Wong
Robin Tritschler
© Garreth Wong

Despite the credentials of the conductor, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was never corralled into a poor imitation of a period ensemble; an interesting compromise was reached between period influences and what was essentially unashamed big-band Haydn sound. This fullness of sound made the dramatic moments unusually intense; the orchestra’s tone-painting was unfailingly vivid. The glorious sunrise and more subdued moonrise were well delineated, as were the individual characterisations of the newly created animals. The Representation of Chaos could have been more ominous but its strangeness was well underlined (only here did one perhaps long for raspier period brass). Kudos is especially due to the woodwind section, with Haydn's cheeky touches such as the playful flute denoting the brook and the fortissimo bassoons at “by heavy beasts the ground is trod” handled distinctly. There was darkness here too; the orchestra bringing Haydn's “outrageous storms” of the second day to life. Upon moving from Part Two into Part Three, one felt immediately the change of mood to a more intimate setting, soft flutes introducing the paradise of Eden. Fortepiano was utilised for the recitatives.

The only true disappointment of the evening was the performance of the bass soloist, Jonathan Lemalu. I've previously heard his Hunding which I found vocally unfocused and unfortunately the same was largely true here. He fared best in the duets with Pierard’s Eve, with a greater firmness of line than in Parts One and Two. There he seemed to lack a firm core to the tone, rendering the faster divisions in the music a garble. Neither was he particularly engaged with the text; the fun imagery of “Rolling in foaming billows” went for little.

Madeleine Pierard was consistently radiant in the dual roles of Gabriel and Eve, somehow making the cruel coloratura of many of her numbers sound joyous; the tricky ascent to the high C in her opening number was marvellous. She introduced much tasteful decoration in the repeats with the melismas on ‘cooing’ in “On mighty pens” so ravishing time seemed to stand still. One could sense a careful contrast between the two roles; dignified radiance for Gabriel and a more charming sweetness for Eve. The plangent tones of tenor soloist Robin Tritschler almost seemed, not inappropriately, to be channelling the Evangelist from the Bach Passions in his recitatives. His best moments were in the solo arias, particularly “In native worth and honour clad”, and he blended gorgeously with Pierard. Of the three soloists, he was the most attentive to the text.

We know that Haydn intended for large-scale orchestral and choral forces in this work. On this occasion the choir was of generous size though Auckland Choral looks on stage to be fundamentally unbalanced, with the ladies far outnumbering the men. However, this was less damaging than it appeared. While the sound may have been top-heavy in some of the choruses, the sopranos in particular had warmth of tone that was mesmeric. And even though the difference in size was apparent, the men were still able to hold their own in the fugal passages. McGegan and the choir handled the famous C major outburst on “Light” with grandeur but without exaggeration. As a whole, the choir sang out lustily and with great generosity of spirit. I would venture to say that more precision of singing was probably possible, but certainly it would be difficult to enter more into the spirit of the work than Auckland Choral did. This judgement really goes for the performance as a whole, a rendition that had one marvelling anew at Haydn’s ingenuity and spirit.