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The best recordings of Haydn’s Creation

The best examples of Haydn's gloriously imaginative and enduringly popular oratorio, The Creation, on disc

Haydn's Creation best recordings

The best recording of Haydn’s Creation

Paul McCreesh (conductor) Sandrine Piau (soprano), Miah Persson (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Peter Harvey (baritone), Neal Davies (bass); Gabrieli Consort & Players
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7361

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About 180 performers participated in the Viennese premiere of The Creation. And in this seminal 2006 recording, Paul McCreesh employed a similar number. The choirs of the Gabrieli Consort and Chetham’s Chamber Choir totalled 91 singers, and the period instrument orchestra included double trumpets and timpani, plus triple woodwind.

The results are magnificent, recreating the kind of visceral impact which made The Creation’s early performances a sensation. The great cry of ‘light’ in the work’s opening paragraph is predictably incandescent, and across the performance the choruses bristle with a freshness and natural energy symbolic of the process of creation itself. ‘Awake the harp’ bursts into life, its fugal argument invigorating, while ‘The heavens are telling’ gathers a tremendous cumulative excitement.

At the same time, no other performance of The Creation is as full of such nuance and colouristic variety. Take Raphael’s recitative ‘Straight opening her fertile womb’, which is a masterclass in intelligent pacing and word-painting from bass Neal Davies, vividly illustrated by the orchestra’s semaphored imitations of earth’s various creatures as they come into being. Tenor Mark Padmore (as Uriel) matches Davies in verbal acuity, and soprano Sandrine Piau is a vibrant Gabriel.

McCreesh modified the English text for this recording to address its acknowledged errors and infelicities. He also scores by hiring separate soloists for Eve and Adam, parts often doubled by the soprano and bass who sing the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Miah Persson and Peter Harvey repay the investment with a fresh, bright account of their duet ‘Graceful consort’.

But ultimately it is Paul McCreesh himself who takes the laurels for this virtually definitive performance. His binding together of choir, soloists and orchestra is masterly, and his sharp, incisive instincts for 18th-century idiom are refreshingly free of the tics and mannerisms that most of the rival period instrument versions exhibit.

The closing chorus – ‘Praise the Lord, uplift your voices!’ in McCreesh’s rendering – caps the performance gloriously, the choir exhilaratingly uninhibited and unanimous despite their number, the soloists communicating an infectious enthusiasm at the ‘new-created world’ around them.

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Three other great recordings of Haydn’s Creation

Sun Hae Im (soprano), Jan Kobow (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass)
VokalEnsemble Köln, Capella Augustina/Andreas Spering
Naxos 8.557380-81

In writing The Creation, Haydn referred mainly to the German version of the words, so it’s arguable that every collection needs a recording in that language. This one, from 2003, fits the bill impressively. Performed on period instruments with an excellent choir and fresh-toned soloists, Spering’s interpretation is zesty and rhythmic, with plenty of intelligent detailing. The sound is vivid too, especially in high-resolution download format. No libretto is included, but at budget price that’s forgivable, and you can easily find one on the internet.

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Sarah Tynan (soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) & Matthew Brook (bass-baritone)
Handel and Haydn Society/Harry Christophers
Coro COR16135

The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston gave the North American premiere of The Creation 200 years ago, and this live performance from 2015 shows the society to be still in prime fettle.

In using period instruments and the English text it is an obvious rival to McCreesh’s version, but with a more typical complement of performers (about 90). That actually helps to clarify Haydn’s intricately interwoven choral writing further, and little is lost in terms of communicative impact. The soloists are finely matched, and Harry Christophers directs stylishly.

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Elisabeth Grummer (soprano), Josef Traxel (tenor), Gottlob Frick (bass)
Der Chor der St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale Berlin & Die Berliner Symphoniker, Karl Forster
Warner Classics 723 5442

This Berlin recording (of the German text of The Creation) was made nearly 60 years ago, long before the period instrument movement caught up with Haydn. And yet it has a glowing authenticity all its own, not least because of its wonderfully ripe-toned, expressive soloists. Forster is no slouch either, though some of the big choruses are on the slow side. The orchestral playing is gracefully pointed, and the stereo sound is satisfyingly full-bodied. An excellent choice if you favour modern instruments and truly timeless solo singing.

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And one to avoid…

Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, Werner Krenn, Walter Berry, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Wiener Singverein & Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
DG 4497612

The first of Herbert von Karajan’s two commercial recordings of The Creation is famous for its stellar soloists, particularly the superlative tenor Fritz Wunderlich. But Karajan’s approach to the score often has a juggernaut-like quality which seems pompous and grandiose compared to rival versions.

‘Rollend in schäumenden Wellen’, for instance, lumbers in a proto-Wagnerian fashion, while the concluding ‘Singt dem Herren’ courts virtual stasis. There’s some splendid singing, but overall a sense of joy is missing.

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