Monday, May 5, 2008

There at The Creation

You don't find much more ambition in composers than in Franz Joseph Haydn, who tackled nothing less than the beginning of everything in his oratorio The Creation. But you also rarely find more humility; The Creation resounds not with the drama of its own creation, but instead echoes with a note unheard in music of late - the sound of gratitude. As the great composer, like a tiny god himself, re-conjures the world musically, he does so with a palpable sense of affectionate embrace (even "hosts of insects" and the lowly worm are greeted with warm bemusement). And since he only ponders the world before the Fall (we leave Adam and Eve before they touch that apple), the piece is suffused with a poignant optimism. The hosannas and thanks-be-to-Gods may get a little relentless, but they're still radiant, and heartfelt.

A performance of The Creation should, therefore, give off its own glow, while not taking itself too seriously - a poise that Boston Baroque managed admirably last weekend. Conductor Martin Pearlman (at left) clearly understood both the uplift and the implied regret of the piece, and he kept things moving at a brisk clip (as the text is pure exposition, it can get a little static). Alas, said clip was sometimes slightly unsteady - Pearlman keeps a lilting, eccentric beat, and as a result (I think), entrances and exits can be a bit ragged; many of the same musicians play more cleanly over at Handel and Haydn. The upside of said lilt, however, is a rhythmic freedom that brought real verve to Haydn's tone painting: the whales swayed before with us with lugubrious grace, and the "ponderous beasts" of the earth were greeted with a hilariously flatulent blast from a 9-foot contrabassoon. (You could almost hear Haydn chuckle at that one.)

The soloists were likewise in solid form. Tenor Brian Stucki had just the right timbre (even if he thinned out alarmingly at the top of his range), and struck an appropriately fond, cantorian tone. He was perhaps outshone, however, by soprano Sari Gruber and bass-baritone Kevin Deas. Gruber's tone was warm yet pure, while Deas almost reveled in the richness of his low notes - but both were at their best together, as Adam and Eve in the oratorio's final section. Rarely do singers have chemistry the same way actors do, but Gruber and Deas had exactly that in the teasing exchanges between the world's first couple, which exude a sense of surprisingly wise romance (despite their all-too-traditional sex roles). Of course we know what's going to happen, even if they don't - Haydn and his librettist, Gottfried van Swieten, offer only the faintest of foreshadowings (A&E both love the "taste of rich and ripened fruit"). But that knowledge only made this evocation of what might have been all the sweeter.

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