Boston audiences bade a fond farewell to Harry Christophers at this weekend’s Handel and Haydn Society performances of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, Christophers’s last as Artistic Director. Given that he made his debut as Handel and Haydn’s AD in 2009 conducting Handel’s Messiah, it was only fitting that he took his leave with a work of Haydn. Symphony Hall had filled to near capacity for the emotionally bittersweet event, and the audience expressed its gratitude for his distinguished work during the past 13 seasons with a standing ovation when he first entered the stage which he modestly declined to prolong.
As one would expect, the H+H chorus, soloists, and orchestra delivered a memorably colorful and personal performance. Clearly in his element, Christophers conducted with panache, delicacy, authority, and humor, by turns. H+H sensibly opted for the English text of the oratorio (the German version being not uncommon even in this country), but this led to my single recurring complaint: as an English speaker, I found it frustrating to feel rather frequently compelled to refer to the printed libretto, particularly during the solos, due to the less-than-ideal enunciation of the archangels Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael who narrate the story. In other respects they sang with exemplary virtues.
Before the oratorio, as a gesture of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, the chorus and orchestra gave a heartfelt performance in Ukrainian of the simple but beautiful anthem Prayer for Ukraine by Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912).
H+H’s rendering of the oratorio’s opening “Representation of Chaos” retained its fascination; the orchestra’s strings depictied the mysterious dark void with the absence of vibrato in the groping harmonies until the appearance of Light in that stunning choral sforzando, Tenor Robert Murray, as the archangel Uriel, effectively delineated the first daylight from the endless night of the abyss, with the chorus elaborating on the same theme. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook, as Raphael, convincingly delivered one of the work’s most dramatic recitatives, describing the tempest that divides the waters above the firmament from those beneath it. Soloist, orchestra (perhaps the timpani most of all), and conductor enjoyed the composer’s vivid word-painting here. Soprano Joélle Harvey (Gabriel) used limpid tone and poised flourishes in describing how the company of angels “beholds amaz’d the glorious hierarchy of heav’n” and praises God, with the chorus portraying the celestial audience.
With the separation of seas from dry land on Creation’s third day, Brook treated us to still more stormy weather but also to lyrical melody depicting gentle brooks and rivers over open plains. In the agitated string figures one could perceive a direct lineage from Haydn’s “Rolling in foaming billows uplifted roars the boist’rous sea” to Mendelssohn’s “The stormy billows are high; their fury is mighty” (Elijah). As this irrigation caused the earth to bring forth plants, Harvey gracefully rendered the famous aria “With verdure clad”, her effortless coloratura evoking the efflorescence of a variety of greenery. The third day concluded with the chorus of praise “Awake the harp, the lyre awake!”, taken at a crackling tempo; the chorus tossed off the brilliant runs with clarity and vigor.
After the Creator separates day from night and organizes time into days and years, Uriel’s aria “In splendor bright” features two parts that begin in repose but grow and culminate in emphatic chords. Murray infused his singing with quiet awe as well as more extroverted exhilaration, leading directly into the well-known chorus “The heavens are telling”. The soloist trio of archangels provided a charming counterpoint to the grand choral texture. The musicians’ lithe, energetic rendering gave this “old chestnut” new life.
With the opening of Part Two and the fifth day, marine life and birds appear; Gabriel describes a selection of the latter in “On mighty pens [wings]”. Harvey characterized the noble eagle, the merry lark, the tender dove, and the delightful nightingale. Instrumentalists, too, expertly enhanced these portraits: principal clarinet Eric Hoeprich imitated the lark’s song, rustling strings evoked a cooing dove, and principal flute Emi Ferguson’s roulades (along with Harvey’s coloratura) illustrated the nightingale’s song. The fifth day concluded with an aria shared among the three soloists, a trio, and another invigorating chorus (“The Lord is great”). Harvey, Murray, and Brook shone again, displaying agility and fervor in their many exceptionally florid passages between the choral phrases.
The following day brings the “beasts of the earth after their kind”; Raphael’s second recitative represents the work’s apex of both word-painting and humor, in a miniature “carnival of the animals”. The orchestra and Brook vividly portrayed the tiger’s leaps, the nimble stag’s dashing, and the noble steed’s impatient neighing. The energy level decreased dramatically into a restful pastorale to depict foraging cattle and “the fleecy, meek and bleating flock”, picked up again momentarily for the swarming insects, and then slowed even further to evoke “[i]n long dimensions creeps with sinuous trace the worm.” Brook inspired many a smile and chuckle by plumbing the bottom of his vocal range and displaying a wormlike mien. He continued, however, with alacrity into the extroverted aria “Now heav’n in fullest glory”, negotiating its plentiful coloratura with agility and assurance. Contrabassoonist Damian Primis added one final bit of humor with his very deep rasp at “by heavy beasts the ground is trod.” The scene’s final chorus cum soloists’ trio, “Achieved is the glorious work”, proved to be a highlight like its predecessors, with propulsive rhythm and antiphonal alleluias.
The entirety of Part Three is devoted to the Seventh Day, that of God’s rest. Before the concluding chorus of Part Two, Uriel had described the creation of the first humans without giving them names, but Haydn’s librettist Gottfried Baron van Swieten elected here to introduce Adam and Eve as characters. The sublime introduction to Uriel’s recitative, “In rosy mantle appears”, features the orchestra, particularly highlighting the flute trio as well as the other wind instruments. Christophers elicited glowing sounds from his orchestra—a rapturous backdrop to the entrance of “the blissful pair,” and Murray’s sweetly sincere delivery beguiled. Adam and Eve (Brook and Harvey), gently backed up by the chorus, then declared their adoration of God and his creations with music not far from the Romantic. After a further sequence of arias and duets extolling God and his works, the penultimate scene shows the blissful pair seemingly discovering their attraction for each other for the first time. Brook and Harvey delivered the duet, “Graceful consort! . . . Spouse adored!” with notable tenderness, warm expressivity, and loving glances. Uriel gives a veiled warning in his final recitative (“ye strive at more than granted is, and more to know than ye should!”) which Murray subtly underlined, but rather than open up a whole other can of worms (and make the oratorio twice as long!), van Swieten’s libretto chose to wrap up the proceedings with a final laudatory hymn, “Praise the Lord, ye voices all!”. As before, Haydn alternated the chorus with a soloists’ quartet (mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon from the chorus joined Harvey, Murray, and Brook at the front of the stage) who dispatched their many highly embellished lines with impressive brilliance at Christophers’s energetic tempo. The evening concluded with a second standing ovation.
The Society’s handout proudly listed Christophers’s significant achievements as its Artistic Director, and also shared meaningful tributes and citations in his behalf from concertgoers, performers, Mayor Wu of Boston and Governor Baker of the Commonwealth. We owe him a debt of gratitude and will no doubt look forward to those special occasions when he returns as Conductor Laureate.