Haydn’s Creation/Australian Haydn Ensemble/ Sydney Chamber Choir
City Recital Hall
May 1, 2022
There’s nothing better than a big party with all your friends to celebrate a birthday and the Australian Haydn Ensemble did just that for its tenth anniversary with a with a resplendent performance of Josef Haydn’s 1798 hero oratorio, The Creation, in collaboration with exceptional vocal soloists, an augmented ensemble of period and replica instruments and the Sydney Chamber Choir, all under the direction of Roland Peelman.
Led from the violin by founding Artistic Director Skye McIntosh the relatively small ensemble of 33, playing meticulously provenanced instruments, and choir of 27 rehearsed by their Chorus Master Sam Allchurch, were joined by soloists soprano Alexandra Oomens, tenor Andrew Goodwin and bass James Ioelu, all singing in English, in this Australian period-instrument premiere. It was a joyous occasion hearing a rollicking good piece with inspired performances, well deserving of the standing ovation from the enraptured audience.
Haydn was impressed by the great English oratorios of Handel, Messiah and Israel in Egypt after his two concert tours to London in the 1790s. He was especially taken by the colossal array of over 1000 performers at the 1791 Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey. He left with a libretto of the Biblical version of the creation as accounted in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (1667). Haydn’s patron, Baron van Swieten decided that the piece should be translated into German. Haydn himself conducted the oratorio’s premiere in Vienna. Swieten also transcribed an English version that was as close to Milton and the Bible that his language skills permitted. Hence, Haydn’s piece is legitimately sung in either German or English, despite what was described as Swieten’s “miserable broken English.”
The three vocal soloists were superlative, dramatically adept and musically excellent. They were well matched in the small ensembles and incisive when singing in the full ensemble. A relative newcomer to the Sydney scene, bass James Ioelu was a delightful reveal. An engaging story teller as the archangel Raphael, his impeccable diction and spectrum of vocal colours took us through several recitatives until we finally heard him in full voice. From dark omniscience to portraying the power and majesty of “Now heav’n in fullest glory shone”, the creepy sinuosity of worms, the delicacy of falling snow and even a touch of humour, Ioelu had the audience enthralled.
Andrew Goodwin was absolute perfection as archangel Uriel. His aria “In native worth and honour clad” was especially elegantly performed with a beautifully nuanced ending. Alexandra Oomens sang an engaging archangel Gabriel with a nimble coloratura, and silken legato through her range. The love duet between Adam (Ioelu) and Eve (Oomens) was pure flirtatious fun. Oomens’ ecstatic ornamentation portrayed an Eve breathily besotted with Adam who matched her sentiments with rapture and a twinkling eye.
Undeniably, the choir gets to sing some of the most prized moments in music. We know that Haydn was influenced by Handel and rather like the explosive choral onset of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, Haydn has his choir portraying the gloriously deafening moment that the earth is flooded with light. The choir also delivers the gleeful melodies and catchy, counterpoint choruses with artistry, well delineated phrasing, fine ensemble work and punch. They effectively fulfil the role of angels glorifying their maker and supporting the narrative. Having heard the Sydney Chamber Choir so often in smaller scale works, it was wonderful to hear them broaden their repertoire to oratorio and to collaborating with a substantial orchestra. Whilst there is much enthusiasm for young voices on the vocal concert scene, the Sydney Chamber Choir proves the power, the colours, the maturity and the depth of tone that developed voices bring to symphonic choral repertoire, assets that should never be overlooked.
The orchestra with its treasure trove of historic and copied instruments was absolutely on fire, beautifully realising Haydn’s genius, from the dark shapes of chaos to the inventive and lavish musical illustrations of animals, nature and the elements, still paring back to earlier idioms in the recitatives and fugues. They drove the narrative with verve and there was very fine playing from all the sections. The effect was exciting and acutely sensitive to the many changes in sentiment, providing the broad brushstrokes of the canvas, against which soloists and choir etched the detail.
Amidst all the wonderful sounds, there was an unobtrusive figure at the centre of it all, conductor Roland Peelman who shaped the larger arc of the story, whilst honing the detail with even pacing, inspirational musicality and rhythmic energy. The soloists, choir and orchestra were gathered by him into one magnificent whole.
The Australian Haydn Ensemble can be justifiably proud of its achievements over the past decade, becoming regular and respected performers of their specialist repertoire, keeping classical traditions alive. There have been many memorable performances over the years, not least the recent Solar Poetics program which was part of the Adelaide Festival. This production of Haydn’s The Creation with the Sydney Chamber Choir and soloists was certainly one jewel in its crown.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Image credit Oliver Miller©