Royal Melbourne Philharmonic: Carmina Burana

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Published: 2nd October, 2015

This one-off program by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic could be superficially seen as a grab for popularity, because the two works performed were bound to please. Both, however, are more difficult than might first appear, which would make that a risky strategy. But with a mass of well-trained performers, a stellar line-up of soloists and, above all, a confident and accomplished director in Andrew Wailes, this was always going to be a successful concert. This review could almost have been written before the first bar – but there was much to comment on, and so (as usual) it is the result of reflection over the past week.

The featured composers, Carl Orff and Sergei Rachmaninov, are rarely found together, except perhaps in “Top 100” lists. No matter, the audience had come for not one but two of their favourite works, not to draw comparisons with the order of events determined by the length and scope of the two. That Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 came first was predictable – and, on the night, it proved to be the curtain-raiser of all curtain-raisers. Soloist Stefan Cassomenos is known to many for his membership of Trio Plexus, a champion of new music and a fine ensemble player. The Rachmaninov called for other skills – such as the powerful playing we had heard from this soloist in the 2013 Young Performers Awards when he played Prokofiev. With strength and lyricism the hallmark of both Russian composers, Cassomenos lived up to expectations from the first notes of the Rhapsody, the piano mirroring the crisp percussion and precise timing that conductor Wailes drew from the RMP Orchestra.

Orchestra, choirs and soloists were to prove a good match throughout the work, with the professionalism of the large group remarkable given the relative youth of the performers. Although much of the performance was showy bordering on brilliance, it was the contrasting moments of quiet that impressed, as well as other noteworthy moments such as a waltz executed by the French horn. After an emphatic restatement of the theme by the orchestra, it was as if Cassomenos drew breath before delivering the gently reflective – and recognisable – version of it that is the most lyrical moment in the work. The audience drew breath, and was charmed.

To end, the piano part was cadenza-like in its technical wizardry, with Cassomenos’s fingers flying and the orchestra contributing speed and momentum then a respectful pause to allow the soloist to be centre stage for the contrasting dynamics of the ending. Thrilling stuff, with more to come.

Pianist Stefan Cassomenos had only a short time to rest before he was again at the keyboard for the performance of Carmina Burana. The work requires two pianists (the other was Tristan Lee) and a vigorous percussion section – from cymbals to an equally effective triangle. A large and well-rehearsed orchestra completed an ensemble that was a superb accompaniment to the singers.

But this is a choral work and the interest was in the very large choir, comprising the Australian Children’s Choir and Melbourne University Choral Society in addition to the “home” ensemble, the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir. There were also three soloists, Greta Bradman leading them onto the stage in her strikingly appropriate red gown.

Tension was resolved by the very well known beginning to the work, a loud percussive note followed almost immediately by the chorus O Fortuna. Pronunciation was crisp although the volume could be a little louder. It did finish however with a satisfactorily loud ending and provided a fine contrast to Fortune plango vulnera, slow to start but building to a good pace and (thanks to Wailes) with the orchestra well in sync with the choristers.

The section welcoming spring and new life included a dance, enjoyable for its syncopation and for the chorus that followed. In the Tavern was a chance for the male voices to be heard and for Orff’s rhythmic power to be appreciated. A couple of original touches, well received by an amused and appreciative audience, were the appearance of the roasting Swan bedecked with feathers (counter tenor Tobias Cole) and Andrew Jones, baritone, as the Abbot who was quite rousingly drunk! Both men, however, justified their position as soloists in a challenging work by their vocal performance more than by their antics. The chorus responded with an exhilarating performance of In taberna with Wailes hard put to keep control of their enthusiasm and that of the percussion.

The final section of the work gave voice (literally) to soprano Greta Bradman whose lyrical soprano so suited both Stetit puella and Dulcissime. (Two challenges which recur in Carmina Burana are high notes, some soft, timed especially for the last note after a pause. These were attended to on every occasion, wisely perhaps being fairly quietly sung.)

The reprise of the original movement O Fortuna was all that was needed to make this a thoroughly enjoyable performance of a much loved work. Wailes’ direction to the performers to repeat that chorus and then for the entire Hall to join in was well received … in fact the audience would have been up for hearing the whole thing again, I believe!

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Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and Orff’s Carmina Burana were performed at the Melbourne Town Hall by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Wailes.

Picture of Andrew Wailes by Ken Pryor.