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RDCS Spring Concert – Haydn’s The Creation

Had old Papa Haydn - as the great Austrian composer Joseph Haydn was affectionally known by his musical friends, players and pupils - been present in St Peter’s Ruddington last night, he would, I am sure, have nodded his head in appreciation, smiled benignly, and warmly applauded the Ruddington Choral Society and Ruddington Chamber Ensemble’s lyrical and uplifting performance of his great oratorio The Creation. Using the words from Genesis and from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Haydn’s much loved and performed work tells the story of God creating the Earth and all upon it – the six days described in Genesis when from out of the unformed void and chaos of the universe God made the Earth, the land, the sea, the birds and the fish, the plant and animal life and lastly man and woman – Adam and Eve. It is a tale of awe and wonder, from chaos to creation, and under Paul Hayward’s skilful and exuberant baton that was exactly what we got – musical awe and wonder!

Haydn, long lived, and the foremost composer of his age had a vast musical output, in many ways he was the link between Mozart and Beethoven and like these two masters the common thread of Haydn’s work has always, it seems to me, been that he knew a good tune when he heard one! From his many symphonies to his quartets, his concertos and to his sacred music his work is filled with quietly memorable and evocative or rousingly glorious music. Last night was no exception – we heard Haydn at his best: reflective, gentle, inspiring, reverent, and above all gloriously celebratory as God brought order and life from the chaos.

From the first bars of the orchestral introduction – a movement that both portrays mystery and chaos slowly emerging into some kind of coherence – Paul Hayward’s interpretation seemed clear; this was going to be a lyrical and tuneful Creation. Haydn’s Creation can, in my view, be rather staid, stern even - certainly that is true of the couple of recordings that I have of the work. But staid and stern last night's interpretation was not! It was a joyous celebration of the awe and wonder of the Creation. Unlike his great Nelson Mass which is a different beast, filled with rousing, passionate and patriotic choral movements, the Creation has relatively few choral sections. It is driven by the three soloists and is more reflective perhaps even reverential, than the Nelson. Having said that, the Creation’s choral passages, which are amongst Haydn’s finest writing, and which we enjoyed last night were stunning; the choir, seemingly bursting with energy and enthusiasm clearly enjoyed their opportunities to shine; their soaring, glorious sound I’m sure had everyone in the audience humming along and wanting to move with the music.

The three soloists: Jane Harwood (Soprano), Philip Leech (Tenor) and William Burn (Bass) were truly outstanding and complemented each other and the choir and the musicians to perfection. William Burn’s magisterial commanding bass and crisp diction set the scene, from chaos to the creation of light. At its premier in Vienna in 1798 a newspaper report said of the opening: “At that moment when light broke out for the first time, one would have said that rays darted from the composer's burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes…..”. Well, maybe we didn’t quite get that in St Peter’s last night, but I suspect the opening whetted everyone’s appetite for what was to follow. The musicality of Tenor Philip Leech shone through – as with other of his contributions his singing of the Air “Now vanish before the holy beams” was reminiscent of some great opera aria, expressive, full of love and gentle passion. And Soprano Jane Harwood shone as only sopranos can; her voice crystal clear, reaching the parts of us that others cannot reach. These three soloists drove the work – they told the tale (this was musical story telling at its best) they brought musical order and exquisite sound from chaos, just as Papa Haydn intended.

But they were only part of the story. The Ruddington Chamber Ensemble were again magnificent, underpinning, complementing, enabling the soloists and the choir to show us their best. When the William Burn sang of clouds impelled by the winds and showers of rain, dreary wasteful hail and light flaky snow the orchestra skilfully and sympathetically painted a musical sound picture of the elements at work and play. And the choir? As the first part of Creation drew to a close with perhaps its most famous movement and one of the great choral pieces “The heavens are telling the glory of God” the choir were at their brilliant and brightest best – adding the “power and the glory” to the soloists and orchestra as Part 1 concluded; the celebration of the creation of the primal light, the Earth, the heavenly bodies, bodies of water, weather, and plant life was complete.

After a welcome cup of coffee during the interval and an opportunity for both musicians and audience to catch their breath Part II began its celebration of the creation of sea creatures, birds, animals, and lastly, man. Paul Hayward kept up the pace, pulling every last musical note and every last celebration of joy out of Haydn’s writing. There was a real sense of awe and wonder when Tenor Philip Leech sang of the creation of Adam and Eve “….To heaven erect and tall he stands, a man the lord and king of all…………[a] partner for him formed, a woman fair and graceful spouse. Her softly smiling virgin looks, of flowery spring the mirror, bespeak him love and joy and bliss….” And this was followed by another beautifully executed interplay between the choir, the soloists and the orchestra as Part 2 came to a close with the rousing and sweeping “Achieved is the glorious work, the Lord beholds it and is pleased….”. And we in the audience beheld it, and we too were pleased, very pleased!

And so to Part 3, the Garden of Eden, and the happy first hours of Adam and Eve. The duet “By thee with bliss” between Soprano Jane Harwood and Bass William Burn was one of the highlights of a highlight filled night – the great Mozart, the great purveyor of beautiful music would surely have been pleased to have written that piece and seen it performed so exquisitely in of his operas! With the choir and orchestra in full bodied and glorious support there can be few pieces of music that so powerfully and sublimely reflect the words: “By thee be bliss, O bounteous Lord, the heaven and earth are stored. This world so great, so wonderful, thy mighty hand has framed…….”. And, as Paul Hayward – by now he must have been exhausted having driven all the performers at such an exuberant and lively pace – moved the whole company into the final “Sing the Lord, ye voices all” and the “Amen” I am sure that, like me, everyone in the audience must have been feeling the exuberance, the joy and the awe and the wonder of the creation story.

A few years ago we had the good fortune to visit the Palace of Ezterhazy in Austria. It was here that Haydn spent much of his working life and where many of his compositions were first heard (but not the Creation). It was, on that day and still is, one of the highlights of my life to have stood and be a small part of where Papa Haydn plied his trade as Kapellmeister for the princes of Esterhazy. He gained the nickname “Papa” because of his gentle father like relationships with his performers and pupils and also because he was and is commonly regarded as the father of symphonic music and thus the father of what we all loosely refer to as “classical music”; those who came after him – Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler et al stand upon Haydn’s shoulders. I can vividly remember standing in the magnificent Great Hall at Esterhazy and gazing up at the richly decorated ceiling, as the princes of Esterhazy must have done as they listened to their humble Kapellmeister Haydn’s latest composition, and as I gazed up, mouth open, some of the glorious music – the “good tunes” that Haydn had such an ear for – went through my mind. Last night in St Peter’s I thought again of this and how much pleasure Haydn has given to me and to the world.

One again, Ruddington and District Choral Society, the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble, and especially Director Paul Hayward and his associate the musical maestro Michael Overbury have excelled themselves. Last night’s choir had, I think, increased in size from the last concert. Perhaps this is a reflection on the Creation as a much loved piece of choral music – in short, people want to come along and be part of it. But I also suspect that what Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury have created and are achieving at Ruddington is something that people want to be part of. Long may it continue – and I have absolutely no doubts that if Papa Haydn was sitting on the St Peter’s rafters last night he would have recognised and praised what he saw and heard and of how his music was interpreted and performed.

Tony Beale