Prom 17: Kazuki Yamada conducts two choral masterpieces by Stravinsky and Orff with CBSO forces

Igor Stravinsky
Symphony of Psalms

Carl Orff
Carmina burana

Maki Mori (soprano)
Matthias Rexroth (countertenor)
Germán Olvera (baritone)

CBSO Chorus
CBSO Children’s Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus

University of Birmingham Voices

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Kazuki Yamada

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 27 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Belief proved central here: praise of a deity and a celebration of paganism. An odd choice to pair these choral masterpieces, written a mere five years apart, and yet this concatenation enabled the listener to focus on the human need to believe in something, irrespective of whether it has a religious dimension to it. Both works by Stravinsky and Orff make use of Latin texts, the linguistic basis for the litany in Christian churches, but also the traditional identifier of an educated human being in the Middle Ages.

Stravinsky’s 1930 score carries the following dedication: “This symphony composed to the glory of GOD is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.” With its choral dimension and three linked movements, it wasn’t quite what Boston was expecting. The score also stipulates a preference for children’s voices for the upper two choral parts, though in his 1963 recording the composer himself made no use of them. There were some eighty young voices on the platform, together with just over two hundred adult singers. Enough, therefore, to make a big sound and to fill the Royal Albert Hall.

Yet at times the singing threatened to overwhelm the orchestral accompaniment, shorn of violins and violas, which with the predominance of woodwind and brass was one of the ways in which Stravinsky demonstrated his own belief in neoclassical clarity and restraint. Unaccompanied choral sections fared better, as did instrumental solos such as the oboe that begins the second of the three sections. However, words sometimes got lost and the coordination between singers and players was not always sufficiently exact. Kazuki Yamada’s approach here stressed less the angularity and austerity of much of the writing – there was not much of the Dionysian savagery that the composer expected in the final movement – than the soft radiance which his choral forces provided. Above all, I missed the mesmerising quality which the final movement can achieve with its repeated Alleluias and Laudates (all based on Psalm 150). This sanctuary of sound can transport the listener to ethereal regions beyond our immediate consciousness, yet not sufficiently accessed here.

If you want something raunchy, rollicking, and rambunctious, there’s nothing to beat Orff’s Carmina Burana. It has elements of comedy and bawdiness which would be out of place in a sacred setting, pulsating rhythms that create moments of unstoppable force, splashes of vibrancy from a battery of percussion, three vocal soloists, and every opportunity to create a big choral sound.

Yamada has certainly energised the CBSO since assuming the helm in Birmingham, and in this performance, he galvanised players and singers with a keen ear for both the inherent drama and sense of unbuttoned fun. This was a high-voltage realisation of the score, the sparks frequently flying off the magic wand of his baton. In the “Chramer, gip die varwe mir” section, with its underlying flirtatious sensuality aimed at ensnaring the young men of the village, there was a fine element of theatricality. After the entreaty of sopranos and altos to “Look at me, young men!”, tenors and basses responded by turning to each other with knowing smiles and winks as well as finger-pointing across the divide. Orff himself subtitled his collection of medieval poems and songs “a scenic cantata”, and the original title carries a reference to “magic tableaux”, with the intention of including dance and scenic displays, though the piece is almost invariably performed as a choral work.

The CBSO singers rose brilliantly to the occasion, producing a weighty and arresting body of sound for the opening “O Fortuna”, angelic singing from sopranos and altos in “Floret silva”, unfettered lustiness from the men in the “In taberna quando sumus” sequence, together with remarkable precision and unanimity from the entire chorus in “Swaz hie gat umbe”. Singing entirely from memory, the children’s chorus delivered infectious radiance in “Amor volat undique”. The orchestra itself excelled in the “Round Dance” interlude, capturing all the qualities of a lullaby.

Not all the soloists matched the same degree of unflagging intensity, two of them very late replacements for the originally advertised artists. In “Olim lacus colueram”, a swan is slowly being roasted on the spit. The tessitura for the tenor soloist lies uncomfortably high, usually negotiated by recourse to falsetto. I think that the use of a countertenor, here sung by Matthias Rexroth, is more effective, conveying as it does the increasing note of desperation as the spit turns. From a slightly colourless and under-projected start, the Mexican baritone Germán Olvera improved considerably, savouring his words in “Ego sum abbas” with obvious lascivious enjoyment, and exploiting his full range in “Dies, nox et omnia”. In his unaccompanied dialogue with the male chorus in “Si puer cum puellula” his body language and operatic style of delivery were a particular highlight. By contrast, the soprano soloist has much less to do than the baritone. Maki Mori sang softly and sweetly enough, though not always with a perfect evenness of line. She struggled a little with her Latin in “In trutina” and fell just slightly short of orgiastic radiance in the stellar “Dulcissime” aria.

Referring to Orff’s one-hit-wonder, the American musicologist Richard Taruskin declared some two decades ago that “It is just because we like it that we ought to resist it”. As with so many guilty pleasures, one should be free to indulge from time to time. Carmina Burana can be criticised on several levels but as a piece of frivolous entertainment and incantatory magic it has few rivals.

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