We tend to forget how revolutionary Haydn’s music was in comparison with his contemporaries’ output. In recent weeks, European guests – Paul Lewis and the Modigliani quartet, respectively – have reminded New Yorkers how remarkably fresh Haydn’s piano sonatas or string quartets can sound today. Die Schöpfung (The Creation) is considered less of a turning point in the history of classical music than some of these opuses. Proposing a re-encounter with the oratorio, Les Arts Florissants and the ensemble’s resident magus, William Christie, proved to everyone willing to listen how wrong this assertion is, especially with respect to the work’s orchestration. As revealed by these brilliant musicians, the innovative treatment of the woodwinds’ dialogue with the soloists, the ability to find the corresponding timbres for different elements of the natural world or the overall broad palette of instrumental color are wonderful examples of a truly enlightened craftmanship.

William Christie, Sandrine Piau and Alex Rosen
© Richard Termine, courtesy of Lincoln Center

From the very first bars of the C minor Largo, Christie and his period-instrument orchestra brought forward (after a few initial hesitations) moments of surprising beauty, such as the soft-toned clarinet runs and the sudden brass or timpani outbursts. Here, in The Representation of Chaos, the musicians revealed in wonderful detail the miraculous ways Haydn succeeded to obtain, like a veritable demiurge, a unified orchestral sound from individual instrumental snippets and discordant harmonies.

With a libretto written by Gottfried van Swieten based on texts from the Old Testament and Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Creation is a musically illustrated guide to the story of Genesis, a series of narrative tableaux needing strong singers capable of bringing the texts to life. There were only three soloists on Thursday night, with soprano Sandrine Piau doubling in the roles of Gabriel and Eve and bass Alex Rosen singing both Raphaël and Adam. Piau brought to her interpretation her great experience of singing many pre-Romantic roles, perfect German diction, and an exquisite stage presence. She may no longer possess the most mellifluous of instruments, but her rendition of such arias as “Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün” (celebrating the creation of plant-life on the Third Day) or “Auf starkem, Fittiche schwinget sich der Adler stolz” (evoking the creation of birds during the Fifth) were remarkable for her elegant phrasing and contained emotions.

English tenor Hugo Hymas didn’t have the best of evenings, especially in the Part One. His voice could be wonderfully penetrating at times, but he occasionally had the disturbing tendency to mangle German consonants and to prolong vowels. His solos were marked by a certain aloofness, not by a sense of elation and wonder suitable for a narrator witnessing the act of creation.

William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants in Haydn's The Creation
© Richard Termine, courtesy of Lincoln Center

It was a true pleasure to watch and listen to bass Alex Rosen recounting with youthful awe, tenderness and saturnine inflections the creation of the whales (the Fifth Day). He was at his apex in “Gleich öffnet sich der Erde Schoß”, the most beautiful of all tone painting sequences – describing the emergence of several earthbound animals – in the entire oratorio. The remarkable vocal and acting potential of the recent Juilliard graduate were evident in the operatic quality of his very first intervention, “Im Amfange schuff Gott Himmel und Erde”. His long duet with Piau in the oratorio’s third part – a somehow dull, gemütlich description of the prelapsarian Eden – was perfectly balanced. The small, 30-strong choir was the true star of the evening. The choristers rendered Haydn’s contrapuntal mastery – in such numbers as “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” or “Vollendet is das große Werk” – with tremendous conviction and marvelous cohesiveness.

Over the years, William Christie has gradually expanded Les Arts Florissants’ repertoire from its initial core focus on French Baroque to larger spheres, including several of Handel’s oratorios and operas. Considering the ensemble’s performance of Die Schöpfung, a music both innovative and rooted in Handel’s works, further exploration of the latter’s vocal oeuvre seems a worthy endeavor.