Carmina Burana

The Firebird – 1919 Suite
Carmina Burana

Ailish Tynan (soprano)
Robin Blaze (countertenor)
Grant Doyle (baritone)

Crouch End Festival Chorus
Hertfordshire Chorus
Burntwood School Girls’ Choir

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 April, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A full house at the Royal Albert Hall is no mean achievement (it has far more capacity than the Royal Festival Hall and Barbican Hall), which is what the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought off here. The short, 20-minute first half, albeit one starting somewhat late, found the RPO responding with sensitivity to music director Daniele Gatti’s extremes of dynamics and tempos. In a barely-lit auditorium, which was well-judged in creating atmosphere, Gatti, seemed to relate the slower numbers that constitute the 1919 suite from The Firebird to the great Russian tradition of ballet music, specifically The Sleeping Beauty, and pared down pianissimos to near-inaudibility: tantalising and suggestive. With many excellent solos from woodwinds and strings, and a lively and colourful response, the music gleamed with incident. Only Gatti’s fast tempo for ‘Infernal Dance of King Kaschei’ was questionable – both articulation and ensemble suffered and the orchestra sounded pressed, and there was nothing left to peak with come this section’s denouement.

Also conducted from memory, Gatti was similarly extreme in “Carmina Burana”, Carl Orff’s best-known work that sets 13th-century Latin texts, not a few of which are bawdy! Some deal with love … and other pleasures! The lighting increased just enough to read the words, Gatti, for the most part, gave the music time to express itself – although he also ‘pushed through’ at times (the orchestra-only ‘Dance’ for example) and didn’t leave Grant Doyle much breathing space when ‘In the Tavern’. There was though a lot to admire in the crisp detailing of the orchestra, and the careful balancing of the choruses with the players. Again, drops to ultra-quiet pianissimos were especially effective, and, in those numbers that can outstay their welcome, Gatti resisted the temptation to rush and kept the ear tweaked through clarity of detail. Sometimes though a tendency to push ahead and to exaggerate effects (oompahs!) spoilt the whole.

Gatti chose a countertenor for the roasting swan, but Robin Blaze had the high notes comfortably in place so the necessary strain Orff wanted from a ‘normal’ tenor (even a high one) as the flames lick was severely compromised. And the use of a girls-only chorus (Orff surely wanted boys, too) was equally debatable. The combined choruses and purple-clad young ladies were splendid though – lusty, committed, very well prepared and fully pliable to Gatti’s dynamic (in every sense) demands. Ailish Tynan made delectable contributions!

“Carmina Burana” can sometimes seem like music with a gulf between quality and popularity. On this occasion, with reservations, Gatti ensured a specific rather than a generalised response, one that brought out Orff’s debt to Stravinsky, and which raised appreciation of Orff’s achievement.

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