Music Review: Helmuth Rilling Conducting Haydn's 'The Creation' With NSO

Helmuth Rilling brought restraint and clarity to Haydn's unusual work.
Helmuth Rilling brought restraint and clarity to Haydn's unusual work. (Kennedy Center)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Some years ago, at intermission of a song recital, I overheard two people going up the aisle. "I liked it," said one, "but I didn't understand the words." "Don't worry about that," said the other, who was clearly the self-styled aficionado of the two. "Just let it wash over you."

Well, that used to be the prevailing wisdom in the days before supertitles, when we all routinely listened to opera without actually knowing what the people onstage were singing about. So at last night's performance of Haydn's "The Creation," which the National Symphony Orchestra -- in a pared-down incarnation -- performed under the German early-music specialist Helmuth Rilling, I wondered if the omission of printed texts from the program was a deliberate choice, a way of focusing the ear on what was happening musically onstage.

Of course, it was hardly fair to the majority of the audience, who probably did not speak German. Nor did it seem fair to Haydn. "The Creation" is, after all, a careful piece of tone-painting: an illustrated musical guide to Genesis. Without following the words, how can you appreciate the roiling waves that the orchestra depicts while the baritone is singing about them, or the hush of falling night that the tenor breathlessly depicts, in a voice that falls as gently as graying twilight? To say nothing of the musical fillips and furbelows: the song of the nightingale, the galloping and stamping of a newly created horse.

But the wordlessness wasn't intentional at all. At intermission, when printed texts were handed out, it emerged that they had simply been delivered too late to be inserted into the programs.

Still, there's something to be said for being brought face to face with music that is usually viewed through the screen of a printed text. Rilling was certainly striving for clarity in every measure. And it was impressive that he achieved such a classical sound with an emphatically un-period orchestra: Even with a full score, three soloists and the very fine University of Maryland Concert Choir in the background, the scale of the evening was classical and human, rather than the overblown powerhouse of the Victorian oratorio.

One of the most famous passages in this whole work is the dawning of the light, which emerges out of the winding, sometimes chromatic sounds of chaos in a thundering C major chord, while the chorus, full voice, states: "Und es ward licht." Rilling managed to make this moment at once huge and comprehensible, held within clearly defined limits. One understood that it was the largest possible sound to be made, but it was made on 18th-century terms. ("The Creation" was first played in 1798.)

Hearing the first half of the piece naked, so to speak, also underlined for me the work's odd kinship with singspiel, the comic opera popular in the German-speaking world in Haydn's day. "The Creation," indeed, is an anomalous work for its time: a secular piece on a sacred topic. It attempted to create a link to the tradition of Handel, which despite its neglect occasioned some interest in Vienna in that period, but it is almost willfully antic, even fey, with its birds and animals and tone-painting, and angels (the three vocal soloists, for the first two parts of this three-part work) who lapse into little arias that evoke the sound of Mozart's "Magic Flute." It's a deliberate blend of seriousness and the vernacular, a combination for which there was, at the time, no musical language.

As a result, the work keeps trivializing itself. The final section, most of it a duet between Eve and Adam, indicates that the highest state of human bliss before the Fall was a kitschy buffa happiness. The text, by Gottfried van Swieten, implies moralistically that the couple is at risk of messing everything up, but Haydn's music has no way to impart anything but burbling happiness.

Still, it's a beautiful score, and benefited from Rilling's careful clarity. All three soloists were respectable: Klara Ek, a soprano with a clear, classical, crystalline sound, hard at the edges and firm; Nathan Berg, a dark baritone who grew growlier and vaguer as the evening progressed; and James Taylor, a tenor with a nasal cast to his sound. What Rilling did best, and got the two male singers to do best as well, were hushed, awed, protracted periods of very quiet musicmaking. Berg's quiet, high tones in the whirl before the moment when the light dawned, and Taylor's frankly gorgeous pianissimo as he sang of pure harmonies from heaven streaming down on the earth, were worth the price of admission, and showed the kind of detailed thinking that made the evening a pleasure, for all the foibles of the fine and unusual work that was performed.

"The Creation" will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m.

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