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Creation to Twilight

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

With so many Messiahs stalking the concert halls and opera houses of London at the moment (more than is usual even at this time of year), it was a refreshing change to step back in time, narratively speaking, with the first seven days of existence, as painted by Hadyn in his wonderful Creation.

Mark Elder is the most exciting of opera conductors but this performance with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment saw him at his most theatrically undemonstrative.

The Choir of the Enlightenment sang lustily and, if there was a grandeur lacking in the OAE’s playing, it was a crisp and lean reading which relished every trill, coo, roar and slither in Haydn’s glorious score.

One would have liked more joy and wonder in the vocalists’ performances, as mountains sprang up, rivers flowed and the heavens sprang into being. Sally Matthews began with a plumminess that we’re not used to hearing from this purest of sopranos, but she lightened by the time the birds soared aloft and her Eve was enough to make us believe the creation of the human race was worth the trouble.

There was an earnestness too to Andrew Kennedy’s Uriel, although Neal Davies’ Raphael luxuriated in perfect diction and his Adam was a fitting vocal companion to Ms Matthews’ first lady.

As the drama of the Big Bang microscosmed down to just two happy humans, oblivious to what’s around the corner, the performance grew in inverse proportion, leaving us elevated and glad to be alive.

While one God was creating the world in joyous diversity on one night, another brought it all crashing down at the same venue the following, as Charles Mackerras conducted the Philharmonia in the finale of Götterdämmerung.

If London’s only Ring fix this year (putting aside the Mariinsky travesty in the Summer) were this “bleeding chunks” concert, Mackerras was the man to adminster it. Christine Brewer, who played the role at the Proms a couple of years ago, was the gleaming and rock-solid Brünnhilde.

In the first half, excerpts from Tristan und Isolde showed what a problem there is when this music is presented as concert showpieces. The first act Prelude going straight into the opera’s finale is too brief to give us any real sense of the opera’s glories. The soprano, and indeed the audience, have to earn the Liebestod, and it can never sound the same without the preceding four and a half hours.

Mind you, the youthful exuberance of Tannhäuser’s Prelude and Venusberg Music, as arranged by the composer in 1872 as a fundraiser for the Bayreuth theatre, illustrated perfectly, if it were needed, how great the later music is. Beautifully played it may have been but its brash garishness was scant preparation for the sublimity that was to follow. I have a nostalgic affection for this early work, as it was the first opera I ever saw some three and half decades ago, but had Wagner died after writing it, I can't help feeling we might never have heard his name.

The stitched-together extracts from Götterdämmerung (The Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Death, Funeral March and the Immolation), some 40 minutes of music, played by the Philharmonia with blazing intensity, was just enough to give us a taste of the cumulative effect Wagner’s operas can have.

OAE **** / Philharmonia ****


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