Carmina Burana, SJE Arts on 26 June 2021
The universal popularity of Carmina Burana (1935/6) has not quite made its composer, Carl Orff, a one-hit wonder, his creative work encompassing many genres over five decades. Yet it has without doubt become his signature composition, beloved of performers and audiences of all generations – of which further evidence was seen and heard at SJE Arts.
Orff himself (1895 – 1982) said to his publisher that “with Carmina Burana, my collected works begin”. His chosen secular texts, dating from the 11th to 13th centuries, reflect timeless themes not unfamiliar in our own age, including love and lust, the renewal of life each spring, earthy (almost bawdy) accounts of the joys and dangers of drunkenness, and encircling them all, the famous wheel of fortune with its depiction of the inevitability of fate.
The performance by members of the Orchestra of St John’s and OSJ Oxford Voices was given in the version for two pianos and much percussion, in place of the original scoring for large orchestra and two or three choirs, yet lost nothing in excitement and commitment. From the explosive opening O Fortuna, through the panoply of moods reflected in the vivid texts and the music at times hypnotically foot-tapping or achingly beautiful, the performance exuded both sweeping energy and intimate sensitivity.
The sopranos and altos of the choir communicated not only with their well-blended voices but also with their eyes, evidently relishing the imagery as well as the melodies, rising confidently even to the challenging high chord at the end of Floret silva nobilis, and still giving the impression they had something in reserve towards the end when hailing Blanchefleur, Helen and noble Venus. The tenor and bass sections came into their own, after perhaps a nervous start, with the Gloriantur chorus, proclaiming themselves emphatically to be the equals of the hero Paris. In the lively songs of the tavern, their undoubtedly energetic singing was at times at risk of being drowned out by the percussion. Altogether, the choir sustained the momentum effectively through all the twists and turns of this raunchy, rollicking libretto, obviously enjoying themselves, and quite right, too.
Maki Sekiya and John French coaxed warmth and always supportive accompaniment from their pianos, but their flawless attack and taut playing were the dominant characteristics. They wore their huge orchestral burden with apparent ease, whether conjuring up, for example, an intimate scene of quiet resting by the fireside after a hard day’s work in the fields, the enticing playfulness of Chum, chum, geselle min, or the irrepressible energy of Tempus es iocundum.
Carmina burana must be a percussionist’s dream, and this team of four clearly loved every minute of it. They, and especially the steadfast timpanist Christopher Nall, were together the heartbeat of this work of which rhythm is the ultimate foundation. Constantly changing time signatures add to the complexity. Both choral and solo vocal forces have to rely with absolute confidence on the secure, propelling drive of the percussion – and they could, totally, although just occasionally the players in their enthusiasm overshadowed the equally important pianos.
The soloists transported the audience through a wonderful variety of scenes. Xavier Hetherington was a suitably agonised, suffering swan being roasted. After the excitement of In Taberna, the ten-year-old treble Belinda Gifford-Guy changed the mood instantly to that of the Court of Love, with her pure tone, excellent diction and perfect intonation in the unaccompanied Amor volatundique (Cupid flies everywhere). The soprano Ilona Domnich sang with sensitivity and compassion, sustaining beautifully the limpid melodic line of Intrutina and bringing a real sensuality to the stratospheric Dulcissime. John Findon, baritone, was electrifying, singing with commanding authority, an apparently infinite range (especially in Dies, nox et omnia), and a wonderfully ironic self-pity when contemplating rejuvenation through a kiss. His Oh, oh, oh, bursting out intensely with first love, was a memorable highlight.
John Lubbock, founder-conductor of the Orchestra of St John’s, marshalled all his forces with poise and clarity, the tempi proving perfectly judged throughout. He drew evocative and appropriately contrasting performances from all the solo, choral and instrumental forces, who clearly thrived on his intimate knowledge of the score and his vast experience. This was a thrilling performance which, I feel, Carl Orff himself would have enjoyed immensely.