Joseph Haydn is remembered as a great creator. He invented the very idea of the symphony, the concerto, and the string quartet – all of which sprung from his Classical sonata form. However the one work that he actually titled The Creation assumed an older style: the oratorio. It’s appropriate that Mostly Mozart would select Haydn’s late, lofty achievement to close its Festival (just as it did in 2009). It has the august quality of a masterwork, coupled with cheerfulness befitting a summer series that ends in the month of August.

Louis Langrée © Jennifer Taylor
Louis Langrée
© Jennifer Taylor

Haydn began The Creation toward the end of his long career, at the age of 65. He enjoyed newfound artistic freedom while employed by Prince Anton Esterházy and took a trip to London that proved pivotal for his own development and, consequently, the Classical style. Haydn’s open-mindedness belied his age and stature; it is said that he set out to produce an oratorio after hearing George Frideric Handel's Israel in Egypt. Perhaps Haydn felt it was his destiny to compose The Creation after he received the libretto, which he believed to be written for Handel, but never used.

The Creation is a cornucopia of orchestra, chorus, trees, oceans, beasts, fish, fowl, heaven, and earth. But, as a whole, it hinges on the timing and storytelling skills of just three soloists. In this program two of those singers, the tenor Thomas Cooley and bass John Relyea, assumed their roles on short notice, replacing Andrew Staples and Brindley Sherratt.

Cooley and Relyea mostly held their own as the archangels Raphael, Uriel, and Adam (of biblical fame). Cooley’s soft expressiveness was a cut above the rest, particularly in one of the work’s most cherished arias, “In native worth and honor clad”.

Cooley’s voice occasionally sounded tender to the point of fragility; and maybe it was the unforgiving acoustics of Avery Fisher hall, but Relyea’s voice was, at times, round to the point of seeming marble-mouthed. Relyea also failed to capture the work’s more playful moments, most notably in the subterranean aria “At once Earth opens her womb”. That said, Relyea did opt to take the sensational low D (not written by Haydn) on the final note over the word "Worm".

Sarah Tynan, the only soloist originally scheduled, was selected for good reason. She struggled a little with pitch, but overall, her light lyric soprano was near-perfect for the parts of the archangel Gabriel and Eve (see: “Adam and”). She offered consummate, airy agility when mimicking birdsong in the aria “On mighty pens uplifted soars”. Tynan conveyed Haydn's jocular spirit and blended well with her male counterparts. Trios made for some of the lovelier moments of the evening, enlivened, in large part, by Tynan’s confident entrances. Her mischievous smirks were the only antidote to Relyea’s undue solemnity when he shifted to the role of Adam in Part III.

Despite a solid performance from soloists, the concert's brightest stars were those up in the sky. Haydn’s depictions of the firmament have, remarkably, preserved the awestruck sentiments of stargazers from his day.

The festival orchestra was on good form. Louis Langrée elicited a luminous sound from his string section, a good thing in a piece where light plays such a central role. Flautist Jasmine Choi’s solo at the opening of “In rosy mantle appears” was simply glorious. The brass section had plenty of opportunities to shine, too, though they shone a bit long here and there, even after Langrée’s cutoffs.

The Creation was sung in English for Mostly Mozart (instead of the more common German), but this was as Hadyn would have intended it for Anglophone audiences. A performance in one’s native tongue brings greater immediacy, of course, but also an awareness of poetic shortcomings. The libretto – culled from Genesis, the Psalms, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, translated into German and then back into English – can feel a bit overcooked. Still, there is much in the way of evocative images. A few choice moments include depictions of water (“Thro’ th’open plains outstretching wide in serpent error rivers flow”); whales (“Multiply, ye finny tribes, and fill each wat’ry deep”); and Mother Earth (“Strait opening her fertile womb, the earth obey’d the word”).

Haydn’s translator, Gottfried van Swieten, served as the Imperial Court Librarian for the Austrian Empire and possessed an affinity for catalogues. But catalogues, even ones that list empyrean wonders, can yield moments of tedium. The Mostly Mozart Orchestra mostly guarded against this, with punctuation marks from basses and bursts of percussion, evident, for example, in the rollicking accompaniment to “The lord is great, and great is his might”. Likewise, the polished Concert Chorale of New York elevated the drama with its excellent shaping of dynamics.

This was an admirable performance, lending a touch of the sublime to a New York summer night.

***11