Richard Bratby

The last unashamedly happy masterpiece: Haydn’s The Creation, at Ulster Hall, reviewed

Plus: a superbly refined performance at St John's Smith Square

The Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Daniele Rustioni, performing Haydn's The Creation in Ulster Hall

Haydn’s The Creation is Paradise Lost without the Lost. True, the words aren’t exactly up there: translated into German by Haydn’s pal Baron van Swieten and subsequently retro-translated into some of the clumsiest, most endearingly rococo English ever set to music. But you get the idea. Near the start some demons get consigned (very efficiently) to the outer darkness, and at the end the angel Uriel gives Adam and Eve the briefest of warnings – despatched in a brisk recitative before the chorus of angels floods the heavens, once more, with sunlight and praise. Basically, though, it’s optimism. It’s freshness. It’s a universe founded on faith, and with it, joy.

The Creation portrays a world that (for a brief dewy morning) stands in no need of redemption

An odd choice of repertoire for Belfast on a Good Friday? Even leaving the politics and theology aside, it’s hard to imagine a piece more remote from the usual anguished Pass-iontide fare. The Creation portrays a world that (for a brief dewy morning) stands in no need of redemption and its first public performance, in Vienna in March 1799, might have been the last moment in history when a composer could produce a universally acknowledged masterpiece on those terms. Twelve months later Haydn’s pupil Beethoven premiered his First Symphony. From then on you know the story: conflict, issues, the artist against the world, and two centuries later here we all are, still trying to reverse ourselves out of that particular mess.

What we got at the Ulster Hall was surround-sound happiness. The Ulster Orchestra, under its principal conductor, Daniele Rustioni, accompanied the 100-strong Belfast Philharmonic Choir, and it didn’t feel too many. Intimidated by the slimline aesthetic of period instrument orthodoxy, most symphony orchestras feel compelled to shrink 18th-century music down to chamber scale. In fact (as Christopher Hogwood demonstrated back in 1991), Haydn’s own Vienna performances fielded an orchestra of 120, which isn’t far short of Mahler’s Eighth. But Rustioni’s forces certainly filled the stage, and they sounded buoyant. The Ulster Hall was new to me; it’s one of those high-roofed Victorian assembly rooms that acoustically just seems to work. A mural in the foyer listed the city council’s repeated attempts to have it demolished.

Anyway, on this occasion it resounded. There was enough vibrato to give the strings a supple, glossy tone without impeding Rustioni’s dance-like phrasing. The man’s a livewire: speeds were swift, but the effect was more like puppyish enthusiasm than breathless haste, and the woodwinds, in particular, played with huge sweetness and character, individually and as the heart of the ensemble sound. It’s tricky to judge the condition of an orchestra when it’s accompanying a choir, but it sounded as if the good reports about Rustioni in Ulster are justified. The choir was just as fresh: no hint of weakness in the usual areas (tenors and high sopranos), and no trace of weariness as the evening progressed – in fact they seemed to be holding energy in reserve.

As soloists, we had Robin Tritschler (sounding youthful), Emma Morwood (suitably tingly on her high notes) and the baritone Ben McAteer, who sounded rich and savoury and heroic and who basically stole the show by leaning into the guileless comedy of Haydn’s musical depictions of birds and beasts: bleating like a sheep and hollowing out his voice, poker-faced, for that most collectible of lines, ‘In long dimension / Creeps with sinuous trace the worm’. Performances of The Creation tend, by their nature, to be cheerful occasions, but this is the first time I’ve witnessed an audience laughing out loud, or indeed rising to their feet for what looked like a wholly unpremeditated ovation. Rustioni turned to the audience, placed his hand on his chest and led the entire company – players, chorus, the lot – in a deep bow of appreciation. A class act.

The previous night in London, Nigel Short conducted his chamber choir Tenebrae in a more typical seasonal programme of Bach motets interspersed with the sacred music of Sir James MacMillan.

At twilight in a candlelit St John’s Smith Square it simply floated on the stillness

This was the opposite end of the choral spectrum: barely 20 singers performing with superb refinement over a softly purling organ and cello continuo (and sometimes not even that). They blended, wove and separated, bringing out the shadows beneath the pealing harmonic cascades of MacMillan’s Miserere and subtly outlining the massive architectural underpinnings of Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude.

At twilight in a candlelit St John’s Smith Square it simply floated on the stillness: you barely noticed the technical finesse. Earlier this year Tenebrae took some flak for leading a private vocal workshop priced at the higher end of (but clearly not beyond) what the market will take. Musicians do, after all, need to eat. Perhaps the recent saga of the BBC Singers (and their cretinous senior managers) will prompt us to think more seriously about the value that we place upon professional artistry at this level.