The biblical story of Creation might be one of the most contested but it is also one of the most magnificently depicted in human history. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam can only be described as splendid and Haydn’s oratorio is equally so. These works, in depicting the humanistic aspect of Creation, have the facility to transcend the religious. They are timeless, popular from the day they were conceived, and often referenced by contemporaries. Just like no print can compare to standing in the Sistine Chapel and looking up at the ceiling; no CD can capture the wonder of hearing Haydn’s Creation or Die Schöpfung performed live. In fact, it created such a buzz at its premiere in 1798 that performances were sold out and Police were hired for crowd control.
For the 21st century listener it remains one of Haydn’s crowning achievements – every bit as spectacular and uplifting as Handel’s Messiah.
This month, Sydneysiders will have the opportunity to experience the work when the SSO performs it under the baton of renowned Japanese conductor Massaki Suzuki.
The libretto, taken from the Bible’s book of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost, was arranged and translated into German by Haydn’s long-time collaborator Baron Gottfried van Swieten. The text is divided into three parts. The first two, telling of the six days of Creation, are narrated by the three archangels Gabriel (Soprano), Uriel (Tenor) and Raphael (Bass). ‘Part three’ is the first day in the life of Adam and Eve. They are humans and they are lovers as first introduced by Uriel (Allan Clayton in this production) and then expounded in their beautiful love duet (with Neal Davies as Adam and Lydia Teuscher as Eve). Uriel means God is my light and his name is woven into the setting of the text. It is he who warns of man’s fall from grace, but with delicacy and subtlety, for this work is a promise of redemption. It pledges light, strength and healing… words that permeate religious and new age thought. So is the work sacred or secular? Fine Music caught up with Masaaki Suzuki and Lydia Teuscher to ask this and more.
“I think this work should be placed very close to the Christian work, but it is still arguable whether it really is. The text is indeed based on the Old Testament, but is even more affected by Milton and it does not mention the loss of paradise,” says Maestro Suzuki.
“So this should be seen as a work of an idealistic arcadia concept, rather than Christian work. Nevertheless, this does not mean that it would be less important, or by any means in negative evaluation, as a beautiful piece of music created by God which we could appreciate.”
Soprano Lydia Teuscher tells Fine Music: “Well, Haydn said that he had never been more religious and believing than at the time he wrote this piece.
“I was brought up as a Catholic and still believe. Maybe this helps give me a better understanding of the work, but I don’t think you necessarily have to be a religious person to appreciate this work. It has so many facets and also parts where no text is sung, where the music speaks for itself.”
As one with an intricate understanding of Baroque music, how does Maestro Suzuki bring this knowledge to his interpretation of Haydn?
He explains that the transition from Baroque to Classical period was a continuous progression. “Haydn’s music looks and sounds quite different from any Baroque music, but there are many common elements and styles of music making,” explains Maestro Suzuki.
“Nothing is less natural, nor more difficult, than Baroque. Rather it becomes easier in terms of the understanding of the music, in spite of many tricky moments for the ensemble, technically speaking.”
Having performed a wide variety of roles and in several genres, Lydia Teuscher’s “special love” is lieder and she holds an even greater place in her heart for Haydn’s Creation.
“I have to say that I have been in love with this oratorio since I was a child; it was one of the first performances I saw. For me it’s like an opera. I also have to sing different roles (Gabriel and Eve) within the work, which is great.
“The music is so rich in terms of different colours, different orchestrations,” notes Teuscher, who says it’s possible to sense an eagle flying and beating its wings in Haydn’s orchestration of the fifth day of Creation.
“It is at the same time both rich and pure music and I always say you have to feel the music and sing with your heart, then we can create something natural and hopefully reach the audience,” she said.
Since having a family, Teuscher has performed more opera and concert work, however she longs to return to lieder.
“To sing songs is the most bare and difficult thing – but at the same time the most intimate and beautiful communication with the audience – and also vocally it’s the biggest challenge,” said Teuscher.
“Opera is a lot of fun and to have the additional dimensions of (inter)acting and costumes and set, opens up another world which is fabulous. I love acting and singing special characters; it presents another physical demand,” says the singer, some of whose most memorable performances have included playing the male role of Cherubino in the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.
She also enjoys singing Romantic repertoire such as Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel and Berlioz’ Béatrice and Benedicte.
Bringing it together
“Playing and conducting aren’t so different from each other. My conducting would have been never possible without my experience as a player of continuo and soloist,” said Maestro Suzuki.
Playing organ professionally at church services at the age of 12, Suzuki went on to earn degrees in composition and organ at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, then earned Soloist Diplomas at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. There he studied harpsichord and organ with Ton Koopman and Piet Kee and improvisation with Klaas Bolt.
From 1981 to 1983, Maestro Suzuki was a harpsichord instructor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Duisburg, Germany. In 1983 he returned to Japan, where he began teaching at Kobe Shoin Women’s University. In 1990 he founded Bach Collegium Japan, a baroque orchestra and chorus. The group began giving concerts regularly in 1992, and made its first recordings three years later, when they began recording Bach’s complete cantatas for the Swedish label BIS Records. They completed the 55-volume series of church cantatas in 2013.
It is Maestro Suzuki’s approach to classical and baroque repertoire that had placed him on Lydia Teuscher’s conductor “wish list” for a long time.
“I have a lot of his recordings and I’m excited to have the chance to work with him and of course I’m very much looking forward to singing The Creation in German with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra,” she said.
On her last visit to Australia, Teuscher performed the roles of Gabriel and Eve in a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus production of The Creation, where she was credited for the zest and wit she brought to the roles.
“On my last visit to Australia, I performed two different programs in Melbourne and Tasmania. These were great experiences, but I only visited Sydney and the Opera House as a tourist. Now I am very much looking forward to being creative in this house,” she said.
She promises to bring something new as well: “Even if I have performed a work many times, I always look at the entire music again because every time I re-visit it I discover new things and try out something different”.
Having spent 25 years conducting the Bach Collegium, what does Maestro Suzuki see as the role of ‘sacred music’ in the 21st century?
“Well that depends on how you define ‘sacred music’. For me, any music being ‘sacred’ is not according to the classification, but instead according to how you receive the music.
“So, any music can be sacred if you see it as such. In this sense, you always need ‘sacred music’ unless you abandon music.
“The so-called ‘sacred music’ in narrower meaning which is based on the Bible text or composed for the Christian church lost the role long before, unless it works as good music which speaks to you heart,” he says.
With Suzuki’s definition in mind, Haydn’s oratorio is sacred in any guise. From the poetry of Uriel’s aria ‘With softer beams and milder light steps on the silver moon thro’ silent night…’ to the romance of the duet ‘But without thee, what is to me the morning dew…’ this piece cannot but touch the heart. And that’s just the libretto.
Without spoiling it, there is a musical moment to rival Michelangelo’s ‘almost touching’ fingers: it’s so powerful that Beethoven referenced it in his 5th Symphony. But if you want to know more, you’ll have to hear this magnificent work for yourself.
– Nicky Gluch