Franz Joseph Haydn was not only a towering genius as a composer, but in one instance he was also supremely lucky. His 1798 oratorio "The Creation" is ranked by scholars as one of the greatest oratorios, right alongside Handel's "Messiah."
Haydn humbly confessed that he felt touched by the hand of God while writing this masterpiece. But that divine collaboration was enabled only by the fact that the text for "The Creation" was originally written for Handel, who rejected it, leaving it to collect dust for several decades until it was offered to Haydn.
The incredible score that resulted from this stroke of luck is set in three parts describing the creation of heaven, Earth and its living inhabitants, concluding with Adam and Eve leading a paean to God from their earthly paradise.
This musical journey contains just about everything the veteran music lover or the first-time listener could want. It is thrillingly dramatic, contains exciting and richly scored choruses, beguiling and instantly memorable arias, recitatives imbued with an originality that lifts them well above that musical form's usual hum-drum level and even reveals unexpected bits of humor in the instrumental accompaniments for the introduction of various animals.
Guest conductor Yoav Talmi, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and soloists seem to have a quick, collective grip on "The Creation." The incredibly visionary opening orchestral depiction of chaos was coldly chiseled from empty unison statements into well-drawn tensions and dramatic harmonic turns that burst, fortissimo, into blazing C major on the phrase "And there was light."
The chorus, prepared by Roland Martin, was especially effective in the strikingly declamatory "The Heavens Are Telling," with its uplifting harmonic rises at the conclusion. The chorus also delivered adept precision in the sprightly rhythms of "Achieved Is the Glorious Work" and maintained a reliably dependable balance elsewhere.
The three soloists were exemplary, all projecting fine tonal focus and clean articulation.
But more than that, in both solos and ensembles they had the colloquial delivery of the natural storyteller and always placed themselves at the service of the music.
Bass Timothy Jones as Raphael and Adam displayed both drama and a smooth control of the touching lyricism in the early recitative "God Made the Firmament." He also nailed the score's two low Ds squarely and firmly.
The lovely purity of soprano Mary Wilson, as Gabriel and Eve, was revealed in her recitative and aria extolling the growth of greenery and vegetation. She and Jones truly excelled in the expressively intertwined phrasing of their later duet expressing the joy of Adam and Eve in Eden.
Tenor Robert Breault as the angel Uriel sang many of the connecting recitatives and arias with commanding declamation that managed to retain an engagingly committed narrative projection.
Talmi kept the orchestral dynamics superbly controlled so that the voices could be clearly heard and understood. It was a wonderfully conceived and delivered performance. The BPO provided the full text as a program insert, but unfortunately it was an edition different from the one used on stage.
Parenthetically, a study of the BPO archives reveals that in spite of its high repute, this is the first appearance of Haydn's "The Creation" on the BPO Classics series. In contrast, Handel's "Messiah" has been performed 28 times. Music Director JoAnn Falletta should take a bow, in absentia, for having addressed this musical injustice.
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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Haydn's "The Creation" with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Yoav Talmi, conductor. Part of the Classics Series. Saturday night and at 2:30 p.m. today in Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets are $25-$72. Call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.