Carl Orff's scenic cantata Carmina Burana, premiered in Frankfurt in June 1937, is one of those hardy perennials that from performance to performance – amateur to pro-am to pro: according to the publishers, Schott, at least seventy performances are scheduled by the end of this year – gets more often than not roughened at the edges, if not downright abused. An excuse for crude characterisation, rowdy singing, approximated solos, and percussion-heavy decibels.
Introducing this relay from coastal Gothenburg, the orchestra's press office, playing to expectations, suggested that nothing would be different. Fascinated by “meaty and passionate folklore poems, [Orff] created music that was as suggestive, direct and powerful – music that shakes you up as well as moves your heart. So come on down to the pub, see the lust and love of the infatuated, hear the song of the roasting swan, and take a gamble with Lady Luck!”. Following a week incarcerated with Janáček, the chill of a sunny blue-and-white day not inviting me out, I took up the offer, open to every hoary tune.
I wanted the music for what it is. However improbable the prospect, I wanted to experience the sensation of a premiere, without aesthetic reservations, political overtones or history's judgement getting in the way. Here, after all, is a remarkable score, of phenomenal detailing, creative fantasy, knife-edge dramatics, and vocal/instrumental brilliance. Its many moments of sensual depth and intimate texturing should be every bit as thrilling and pulse-racing as the rhythmically-driven set-pieces and climaxes.
Santtu-Matias Rouvali's vernal way with big late-romantic northern and German canvasses ensured a fabulous experience. He's a veritable painter, delighting in the intricacies, twists and balances of the page. He created vast sweeps of pictorial sound, shaped and cadenced with breathtaking timing and dynamics, now virile and urgent, now lyrically dreaming. Before us, long baton tracing the beat, body-language vibrant, stood the young hunter of old bardic blood-line. Forests and flower-maidens, anvils and staffs, strange tongues and Gothic metal made up the mythology and modernity of the moment. The smile that played around his mouth, unleashing the earthy forces of 'O Fortuna' or 'Ecce gratum', was as much one of recognition and wonderment as self-disbelief that he could be at the helm of such a famous longship. In the grand scheme of things, what fatigue possibly crept into the final numbers – some of the extended pauses tending to question direction and tension – was to be readily forgiven and forgotten.
The vocal soloists, a responsive, theatrically interactive trio, negotiated the difficulties of their lines and contours with bravado. Olle Persson, a veteran actor of the old school, commanded the stage, his falsetto unfailing but for one (vulnerably human, paradoxically enhancing) crack. Brett Sprague nailed his part in style. And Ylva Stenberg weaved spells of delicate, aching beauty before her top notes reached for the summit, as flashing as arrows in flight.
Both choirs dazzled, disciplined yet seducingly loving, lustily free. The orchestra, at quality strength, self-listening, the strings glowingly warm, coaxing a gravity sound from deep down, excelled in all departments, with Kate Woolley guest-leading the horn section, and the percussion (timpani not least, Hans Hernqvist) having a winning day on the ramparts (right of stage). Come the end, mixolydian D-major, pesante fff, Rouvali gazing long and upwards, the audience stood and cheered. So did I.
Viscerally focussed sound and camera-work informed this matinee – only movement-titles missing from the live-stream.