Coming only a few months after William Christie's account of the same work with Les Arts Florissants on Virgin Classics, Paul McCreesh's new recording of Haydn's The Creation needed to guarantee artistic excellence in order to justify the expense. Thankfully, McCreesh has worked wonders with this popular but difficult score, and the Gabrieli Consort and Players produce a performance of considerable electricity.
Text and performance practice seem to be the main selling points here: McCreesh has tried to recreate the piece 'as Haydn intended', according to the CD cover, though such a goal is neither possible nor necessarily desirable (most composers of the period adapted their scores to the performance circumstances with which they were presented, Haydn included). Taking his cue from the fact that Haydn began composition on the work under the influence of the large-scale performances of Handel's oratorios in the London of the 1790s, McCreesh has increased his orchestral and choral forces. Double timpani give the Representation of Chaos an extra fizz, while the work's pastoral colours gain in expressivity from the greatly increased wind ensemble. Chetham's Chamber Choir joins the regular configuration of the Gabrieli Consort to form a group of almost a hundred singers; the choral numbers really do benefit from the meaty sound this creates, not least in the uplifting 'Awake the Harp' in Part One and 'Praise the Lord' in Part Three.
McCreesh has also revisited the text, though to be honest it doesn't make a significant enough impact to make one either choose or rebut this version. Whereas Christie recorded the work in German, McCreesh again follows the Handelian genesis of the work and gives it in English. But he has revisited the libretto in order to make it fit the music more cleanly. The original libretto was based on a mixture of Milton and James Thomson, and then translated into German by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, whereupon Haydn set it to music. Swieten then translated his own version back into English, but the word-setting is weak in places. Furthermore, McCreesh has recomposed the recitatives with the help of Timothy Roberts, keeping the harmonies of Haydn's original but responding more sensitively to the rhythms of the English-language libretto than was the case when the English version was grafted onto the German with scarcely a modification.
I suspect all of this textual modification was a huge help to the performers, but it hasn't really had an impact on my listening. What is striking, though, is the fact that although the English language is being used, two of the five soloists don't have English as a first language. In the case of Miah Persson (as Eve), it doesn't matter a jot because her diction is near-immaculate: listen to the sunshine in her voice at the words 'so wonderful' in the duet 'By thee with bliss' and you instantly know that the singer understands the text. But I'm afraid that regardless of her creamy voice, Sandrine Piau scarcely communicates a single word with clarity as Gabriel, a bit of a blot on the text. It's little short of disappointing to hear 'With verdure clad the fields appear' sung with so little appreciation of the undulations of the strong consonant sounds in the libretto. That Gabriel is such an important role in the work means that this casts a shadow over much of the piece, though Piau's singing is never less than polished in terms of phrasing and style. Mark Padmore offers a gravity of delivery and a thoughtful interpretation as Uriel, but personally I prefer Toby Spence's more fresh-voiced and poised performance of this role on the Christie set. Neal Davies is very good as Raphael, however, and Peter Harvey's Adam likewise deserves praise.
The orchestral and choral performances are superb throughout. Although expanded forces are used, the lucidity of the textures and attention to detail equals the Gabrieli Consort's usual high standards, and McCreesh's spirited attack means that 'period performance practice' does not have to equate to preciousness; rather, the use of period instruments gives the recording a depth of sound that matches Haydn's astounding text.
In short, a highly recommended release, available at a special low price.