tue 20/08/2019

Prom 14: The Creation, BBC Proms Youth Choir, BBC Philharmonic, Wellber - Haydn on the edge | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 14: The Creation, BBC Proms Youth Choir, BBC Philharmonic, Wellber - Haydn on the edge

Prom 14: The Creation, BBC Proms Youth Choir, BBC Philharmonic, Wellber - Haydn on the edge

Heartwarming Genesis oratorio despite a few twists too many

From the heavens to west London: 'The Creation' at the PromsBBC/Chris Christodoulou

Hello sun, hello great whales, hello choral counterpoint. If there is a more life-enhancing work than Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, I’ve yet to hear one. Its sheer joie-de-vivre was a felicitous arrival at the Proms, where it really ought to be a regular fixture. Our Haydn seekers were the BBC Philharmonic under its brand-new principal conductor Omer Meier Wellber (pictured below with soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon) – he assumes his post this month – together with the BBC Proms Youth Choir, which recruits 16- to 25-year-olds from all over the country to sing at the festival. 

This 1798 Enlightenment glory is a sacred journey from the startling Representation of Chaos through the arrival of light, the sun and moon, the earth and sea, plants, birds, animals (who could resist that worm?), and finally Adam and Eve who decide that all these natural beauties mean nothing without love. Great choruses of praise stud the piece with every contrapuntal device at Haydn’s technical disposal.

The oratorio was inspired by a large-scale performance of Handel’s Messiah which Haydn, visiting London, heard at Westminster Abbey; and the original libretto (its author’s name lost in the mists of time) was in English, translated into German for Haydn’s purposes. Versions of both are available, and perhaps for the Proms, and for the youth choir, it would have been better to use the English one, which could have communicated more naturally during musical depictions of eagles, tigers and galloping deer, and might also have been more audible. Instead, the language brought out one of several idiosyncrasies from Wellber - some convincing, others possibly less so. Omar Meir WellberThe whole thing was sung in German, until at the end the tenor reminded us that Adam and Eve might still have been happy had they not been “led astray by false conceit” - in spoken English that sounded straight out of the Benny Hill Show. The final recitatives were indeed all spoken, and the last chorus delivered in English. To me, these gestures missed the mark. If they were designed as a journey from the heavens to the here and now, it also involved coming down to earth with a disconcerting bump.

Wellber conducted the first of the three sections from the harpsichord, and the rest from the fortepiano. Haydn apparently asks for a change of texture by including a keyboard in part one, but not parts two and three, so the arrival of a fortepiano was a surprise and maybe not technically necessary. Still, its sound suited both the late 18th-century idiom and the balance (it is more consistently audible in the hall than the harpsichord, which is a good start). Wellber decorated the continuo with ample embellishments and links that kept the pace brisk and highlighted the switches of key.

Brisk indeed - the performance had an edginess which at times worked well, but perhaps not always. Some of the tempi were extreme, to put it mildly, with surprising changes of gear within the choruses; "Die Himmel erzählen" at the end of part one was a case in point, starting too slowly - chorus and orchestra audibly wanted to go faster - then suddenly let off the leash for a final sprint. Some episodes left one wondering if Wellber’s musicians could actually see him - a woodwind entry was missed, and the three solo singers sometimes seemed to have to squint over their shoulders. BBC Proms Youth ChoirSoprano Sarah-Jane Brandon brought delicacy and charm to the soprano solos as the Angel Gabriel and Eve, after taking a little time to settle in. Benjamin Hulett was a strong tenor as Angel Uriel, and baritone Christoph Pohl as Angel Raphael and Adam brought us the best German of the evening, although his warm tone was sometimes swallowed up by the cavernous auditorium. 

The young chorus, though (some of its members pictured above), sounded tremendous - performing their opening words from memory was a nice touch, too - and while Wellber literally bounced at the keyboard, the BBC Philharmonic bounced and soared in response. This appointment to the orchestra may have some interesting results. 

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