Il Giardino Armonico & Giovanni Antonini - Haydn: Die Schöpfung - Gramophone

Haydn’s joyous celebration of an idyllic, prelapsarian world seems particularly poignant in an age when our guardianship of the planet is ever more precarious. And joy is the essence of this new recording from Giovanni Antonini, taking time off from his Haydn symphony odyssey. Based on just 12 violins, his lively orchestra is on the small side. Yet I never felt short-changed. With the muted strings conjuring a glassy pianissimo, Chaos has an ideal mix of murkiness and eerie clarity. The flavoursome timbres of the period wind, from faintly puffy bassoon to deliciously woody flute, are enchantingly heard in Gabriel’s avian aria and the gambolling love duet for Adam and Eve. Many of the solo numbers have a chambermusical intimacy. But except for a smartly paced Sunrise, Antonini and his forces never stint on the oratorio’s grandeur. Orchestra and the firm- toned Bavarian choir (with a notably incisive alto line) pack a powerful punch in the big choruses, not least in the thrillingly clinched climax of ‘Die Himmel erzählen’. Antonini pushes the tempo of the trio and chorus ‘Der Herr ist gross’ to the edge of the possible. But it works, with Anna Lucia Richter and Maximilian Schmitt blithely tossing off their coloratura flourishes like trails of angelic laughter.

Soprano and tenor soloists, both fresh and youthful of tone and elegant in style, give pleasure throughout. Richter sings ‘Nun beut die Flur’ with a natural grace and playful added touches of ornamentation. Schmitt veils his bright lyric tenor in a tender evocation of the first moonrise and the creation of Eve. Florian Boesch’s Raphael, baritone rather than bass, is more controversial: a Lieder-singer’s detail, vivid imagination, humour in his zoological recitative, yet for my taste too much stabbing at individual notes, as in the serene close of ‘Rollend in schäumenden Wellen’; and I wish he hadn’t attempted a disgusted-sounding gurgle of a bottom D on ‘Gewürm’. Boesch is more convincing as a gentle, sensitive Adam (like Haydn himself, Antonini uses just three soloists). In their love duet he and Richter’s smiling Eve sound more than ever like Papageno and Papagena transplanted to Eden.

Competition among similarly scaled and conceived performances in German is formidable. There are invigorating versions from Gardiner (Archiv, 4/97), Harnoncourt (DHM, 5/04), Christie (Virgin/Erato, 2/08), Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi, 11/09), Herreweghe (PHI, 12/15) – I could go on, but won’t. Antonini now joins the list. Harnoncourt, with a uniformly first-rate cast, is the most broadly paced, and the most attuned to the mystery and majesty of creation. If Antonini can occasionally be brisk to a fault, he catches as exhilaratingly as anyone both the spirit and the letter of Haydn’s unsullied vision.

01 November 2020