OAE/Rattle, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

The wonder of creation is not its complexity or mystery, but its simplicity. That, at least, is what Haydn seems to be saying in his most famous masterpiece, The Creation. Here was a composer from country stock who identified with “the herb-yielding seed”, “the flowers sweet and gay”, the “bleating flocks”, the “sinuous worm” – worlds away from the sophisticated Vienna of his day or the metropolitan jungles of our time. In these manifestations of sun-blest fertility, and in the earthy compatibility of man and woman, he saw reason to marvel, to give thanks – and to make wonderful music. The Creation is not a paean to God but a love-song to the soil. Haydn was the first environmentalist composer.

But it takes a special interpreter to make us believe in this Eden – to take it out of the heavy-laden oratorio tradition without subjecting it to microscopic “period” manicuring. In other words, to reconcile the grandeur of The Creation with its classical origins, so that it sounds neither sedate nor lightweight. Enter Simon Rattle. Haydn has always been a Rattle forte, because the music’s well-rhymed spirit finds a soul mate in the conductor’s jubilant personality. And so it proved in this performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its crisp, ultra-sensitive chorus – the start of a month-long Rattle residency in London, as he tests the water for a possible return after his Berlin Philharmonic tenure ends in 2018.

The beauty of his Creation was its swift storytelling energy, its rhythmic bounce and textural clarity, so that Haydn’s musical characterisations of darkness, light, whales, lions, tigers – and humans – were as clearly etched as the words. There has to be room for smiling in The Creation, and Rattle made the music smile, aided not so much by the oratorio’s quaint English (“Ye finny tribes” = fish) as by the OAE’s chirpy woodwinds and rustic brass. Peter Rose contributed gravity to the bass role. John Mark Ainsley brought seasoned eloquence to the tenor part. Sally Matthews was the ecstatic soprano. But it was Rattle’s godfatherly presence that sealed this Creation’s splendour.


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