Auckland Town Hall
October 16 | Reviewed by Samuel Holloway

WHILE evolution may be (to borrow from Richard Dawkins) ‘the greatest show on earth’, the creation-in-seven-days still makes for a damn good story. And Genesis has never seemed more enjoyable that in Haydn’s oratorio The Creation (1798), a monumental, joyful piece that draws on the Old Testament and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is one of Haydn’s most admired works, and – in running the gamut from the creation of worms to the creation of planets – contains some of his most memorable musical moments.

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, and while the composer’s work has appeared on the programmes of many ensembles this year, the recent Auckland Philharmonia performance of The Creation was the best chance to celebrate his powers of musical invention. The concert was conducted by one of the APO’s greatest assets, principal guest conductor (and Haydn authority) Roy Goodman. In orchestras accustomed to Romantic bulk there is the risk of sounding a little frayed when reduced to Classical proportions, but there was no such problem here, with Goodman and the APO giving a sparkling, polished performance throughout.

The Creation is divided into three very different sections. The first part depicts days one to four, with the creation of heaven and earth, light, water, plant life, and the sun, moon and stars. It opens bleakly with the chaos of the universe before creation, and in this performance the Orchestra successfully captured what the great critic Donald Toovey has described as the opening’s ‘ambiguities and boldnesses’, as well as the ensuing explosion into light.

There are three vocal soloists in The Creation, who represent the angels Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel, and these pivotal roles were performed by Australian singers Sara Macliver, Paul McMahon and Stephen Bennett. This experienced triumvirate was impressive from the outset, and in the recitative-like sections was excellently supported by Goodman, with cellist David Garner and bassist John Boscawen.

Haydn has his fun in the second part of the oratorio, depicting the creation of birds, animals and man. Here flautist Catherine Bowie and an assertive Tim Sutton on bass trombone were able to shine in some of the most colourful and witty moments of the piece. Here too the Graduate Choir, which provided the chorus, was able to truly show its rich, full tone and impressive dynamic range.

The unusual third part of the oratorio depicts the first hours of the First Couple in the Garden of Eden. The attention is on two of the soloists, who have now transmogrified from angels into Adam and Eve, and who duet happily for much of the closing third. Sara Macliver and Stephen Bennett were perfectly balanced, with Macliver’s carefully ornamented lines demonstrating her class. While the choir was perhaps a touch underpowered at the close, this was a uniformly assured performance, and a fine testament to the enduring power of Haydn’s music.