During his Indian summer as president of the London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis performed and recorded many of the standard choral works. Haydn’s The Creation was one of them in 2007, but the work must have been a personal favourite, as he planned to return to it this year, if his death in the spring of 2013 had not intervened.
By the time the concert came round it was quite another kind of Haydn that was on offer. The replacement conductor was Richard Egarr, music director of the Academy of Ancient Music and a specialist in the Baroque – different background, a different style, and now the work was sung in English (its genesis was equally in English and German).
Haydn was inspired to write The Creation after a visit to London, when he attended performances of Handel’s oratorios at Westminster Abbey. Contemporary reports tell us that more than 500 performers took part and, though this performance was not on that scale, it was still a full-sized chorus and symphony orchestra that filled the Barbican platform.
Egarr brought with him many of the trappings of period performance. He multitasked (four hands would have been an advantage) as continuo player himself, spinning out far more elaborate flourishes than usual, and set fast speeds, energised by driving rhythms. But the dangers of performing in period style with traditional forces were not avoided: the first rays of the sun sounded unpleasantly hard and bright, more like switching on a spotlight, and the large forces could not help seeming rushed off their feet in the choruses. The best feature was the freedom Egarr gave the LSO’s wind section to shine, especially the three flutes and Andrew Marriner’s clarinet.
The women of the London Symphony Chorus sounded stronger than the men, woolly in the fugal entries of the closing chorus (and how many of the tenors enjoyed the exultant top A in “The Heavens are Telling”?). Marlis Petersen was the expressive soprano soloist, at least once she had warmed up, and the tenor was Jeremy Ovenden, sounding on the shallow side in this company. More impressive than either, indeed the most impressive feature of the whole performance, was the bass, Gerald Finley, grand and beautiful of voice, verbally poetic, and in the biblical passages of the creation of the animals bringing an entire menagerie to life.