There are several fine recordings of Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung and this new version from Les Arts Florissants under William Christie has considerable virtues. Recorded in mainly excellent, detailed sound, it is played and sung with vigour and virtuosity, striking a happy balance between the drama of the universe's birth pangs and the pastoral idyll of Eden.
The opening representation of chaos is a gift for a period instrument band (its opening dissonance is even more disorientating as you adjust to period pitch) and Christie makes the most of it. His wind players are particularly fine – listen, for example, to their exquisite leading of the modulations, introduced by a breathtakingly delicate clarinet run at 2'45. It retains a considered quality and is a deeply moving rendition of this depiction of godless nothingness; an enlightenment man's fearful portrayal of an existence unguided by principle, devoid of knowledge.
Among the soloists, it is Dietrich Henschel as Raphael, the first we hear, who is perhaps the least convincing. Despite his obvious intelligence and careful pointing of the text – he's famously a protégé of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – his voice is the least attractive, sometimes sounding a little dull. He also strikes me as a rather too serious and straight-faced, reluctant to express the necessary sense of joy and wonder at what's happening around him. This effect is exacerbated by a recorded balance which places the soloists unrealistically close and the chorus a little far back; they all but disappear in behind the orchestra's thrilling outburst as they announce the arrival of light.
Genia Kühmeier, who is to sing Pamina in the Royal Opera's revival of Die Zauberflöte early in 2008, is a delight as Gabriel, and I can only imagine her radiant voice and unobtrusive musicality being perfectly suited to that role. Here she's properly angelic in 'Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün' ('With verdure clad the fields appear') and full of wonder in 'Auf starkem Fittiche schwinget sich' ('On mighty pens uplifted soars'), where Christie and his players revel in their evocations of newly created bird life. However, I did feel that she could have brought a greater sense of amazement and Staunen to 'Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk' ('The marv'llous work beholds amaz'd').
As Uriel, Toby Spence is outstanding: lyrical, clear voiced and ardent, pointing the text wonderfully. Like Kühmeier, Spence is appearing shortly at Covent Garden. On this evidence his Don Ramiro in the December revival of La cenerentola is likely to be well worth catching. Sophie Karthäuser and Markus Werba as Adam and Eve make the most of their roles in the third part – in music that I've always thought of as not being quite on the same level of inspiration as the rest of the work.
So that leaves the contribution of Christie and his players and chorus. Throughout, the chorus are beyond reproach and, as I've already mentioned, there is some wonderful playing in the introduction and other instrumental passages. Although the orchestra is reined in a little compared to, say, the Capella Augustina under Andreas Spering in their excellent account on Naxos (at budget price, released a couple of years ago), they still paint a vivid picture in the introduction to 'Rollend in schäumenden Wellen'. Christie's build up to 'Im vollen Glanze steiget jetzt', although still impressive and moving as ever, lacks the impact of the Spering. This aria once again highlights the deficiencies of the recorded sound: Spence is thrillingly open-throated at first but when from 'mit leisem Gang' he sings more quietly, the closeness of the balance really undermines the effect.
This is a very respectable version of this wonderful work, excellent in many ways. It was recorded in late July this year so it says something for Virgin's assessment of its virtues that they should have fast-tracked it to be in the shops in good time for Christmas. There is much to enjoy here and I admire the way Christie seems to be trying to marry the excitement and raw dramatic potential of his period band's sound with a desire to emphasise much of the work's delicacy. And he's certainly got the players to carry this out with ease. That said, though, some might well miss that extra frisson that the best performances achieve.
In a crowded field, the drawbacks I have mentioned ultimately prevent it from being a front-runner. The most obvious of these is the unrealistic balance, which inevitably serves to obscure much of the subtlety of Christie's direction of the orchestra, as well as doing the soloists no favours. Also, when will record companies stop simply printing the old English singing version of the text in their booklets rather than proper translations? This often bears little relation to van Swieten's original and its archaic language can be no easier to decipher than the German.
By Hugo Shirley