The week ended (and a weekend of music began for some) with a memorable concert given by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Called simply Carmina Burana after the main work to be performed, there was in fact an earlier work before interval: Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe: Suite No.2. This review concerns only the major work, thanks to forgetfulness and particularly heavy Melbourne traffic! The word was, however, when I arrived at interval, that the MSO and Chorus were in very good form, so it was with a sense of expectation that we took our seats.
It could be argued that Carmina Burana is to the 20th century what Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was to the 18th, with music lovers around the world now joined by their appreciation of these works. However, my guest claimed to have never seen a live performance of Carl Off’s popular work, and thus it would be a much-enhanced experience to do so. I treasure the memory of a performance in Macau in the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral, lit by moonlight as well as stage lights. But nothing compares to the sound of the music, and the sheer power of many performers dedicated to a consistent rendition of these 40 minutes or so of unique sound.
Most are aware of its origin: “Carmina” means “songs”, while “Burana” refers to a Benedictine monastery called Benediktbeuren in Bavaria, where the early 13th-century songs and poems that comprise the work were discovered (although they originated from Seckau Abbey, Austria). The songs (over 1000 of them) were written in a mix of Latin, German and medieval French by scholars and clerical students, who knew more than you might expect about the joys of drinking and lust. The songs were first published in Germany in 1847, and in 1934 were used by the composer Carl Orff for the unique and energetic work we know as the Carmina Burana.
The first challenge for any performance is the hugely percussive opening note, with the orchestra in perfect sync, followed by the four syllables of the first song, “Oh, Fortuna”. If these are delivered satisfactorily the audience visibly relaxes into an enjoyment of the variety of music that follows. On this opening night performance they were as powerful as you could hope for, thanks to the direction given by the conductor Long Yu. Maestro Yu was restrained in his manner until the very last part of the work but the orchestra was respectful, from the first song with its sudden pianissimo to its equally abrupt change to fortissimo again.
The next, about the “blows” of Fortune, presents a more different challenge, being quite syncopated and complex in its rhythm. At first the men in the choir seemed to slightly lag behind the orchestra and the orchestral interlude was a little too fast. However by the third verse all had settled and the conductor had a minimal role to fulfill. The women, given their chance to shine in the first of the “springtime” songs, sang with ease, maintaining the unison of the three verses.
The first solo is for the baritone, in this case Warwick Fyfe, who is given the difficult task of starting right at the beginning without the cue of a leading note. As well he must sing in the upper range of his voice (almost, but not quite) falsetto. Fyfe’s performance however, was confident and rich from the outset, no surprise to those who had heard him in the Melbourne Ring Cycles of the past three years. The choir came back with the chorus Ecce Gratum (Behold, Welcome) with its sparkling chimes, rhythm, and build of sound, the conductor insisting on a well-controlled tempo and timing.
The orchestra then again showed its mettle in the simply named Dance which began the section, On the Meadow, and recurred after the soprano solo and chorus (“Hawker, give me the rouge”). Throughout this section the strings were particularly noticeable for their fine performance in a work where percussion more often grabbed the attention! Ably conducted by an increasingly animated Yu Long the whole orchestra impressed with its mastery of the fast, demanding rhythms of this section and the next. But where On the Meadow showcased the women’s voices, including the sweet-voiced soprano Eva Kong, the men dominated In Taberna, which followed.
Warwick Fyfe led off with a demanding solo beginning “boiling inside/with a violent rage”, finding the power and volume needed with a full orchestra behind him. His operatic style lent itself well to this dramatic solo, with its emotional range as well as technical demands. Musically speaking, it presented a huge contrast to the tenor solo which followed. John Longmuir was cast in the role of the unfortunate swan – once beautiful, now being roasted on the spit! His voice was high-pitched to start and was plangent and mesmerising in this rather shocking tale. Fyfe succeeded him in the person of the drunken Abbott, the high-pitched “wafna” the high point of his vocal gymnastics. These soloists paved the way for a chorus which was long, vigorous and exciting, the orchestra doing well to keep pace with the male singers.
A children’s choir of about 20 voices from the National Boys Choir of Australia joined the soprano soloist for the section, the Court of Love – a celebration of lovemaking, at times quite explicit. Eva Kong had a new confidence and animation as she sang the high notes of her solos; Fyfe, and the members of the chorus also seemed to have found new energy as the ending was in sight. All joined in the chorus “The season is pleasant”, a passionate account of love, in which the orchestra supported the singers without dominating them.
There remained only two items, both of them very dramatic: Blanziflor et Helena, and Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi. The hymn-like Blanziflor served to slow the pace of the music before the reprise of the powerful chorus that had opened the work, beginning with the same five notes. The music and the story had come full circle, leaving the audience excited and thrilled by the performance. This is one of the rare occasions when it is reasonable to say that every performer contributed to the success of this concert or at least gave the illusion of doing so!